The Past is Prologue: Analysing the upcoming Winged Knight tourney in The Winds of Winter

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by Brashcandy

Sansa and Sweetrobin depart the Eyrie in A Feast for Crows©Anndr

 

Tourneys in the Song of Ice and Fire saga have never been simple affairs. Whether ostensibly organized to celebrate weddings or birthdays, honour officials in high positions, their noble family members, or some other festive occasion, these tournaments — grand or small — have been sites of intrigue, power struggles, attempted rebellions, romantic entanglements, and political scandals. In every tourney that Martin has turned a sustained gaze upon, we have seen the oft deadly game of thrones in operation, where deceit and trickery hold sway, and personal ambition comes with high costs.  Therefore, with Sansa’s TWOW sample chapter revealing another planned tourney that Martin will explore in significant textual detail, we should expect to see many of the same thematic elements and surprising plot developments arising from this event at the Gates of the Moon. This is why, for the purposes of the following analysis, I have found it so instructive to closely examine the five tourneys in the ASOIAF universe that we have been given substantive information on: the Hand’s tourney in A Game of Thrones and Joffrey’s name day tourney in A Clash of Kings; the tourney at Harrenhal in the year of the false spring; and the pair we read of in the Dunk and Egg novellas, staged by Lord Ashford and Lord Butterwell respectively in The Hedge Knight and The Mystery Knight.

Before we get into the central features of the aforementioned tourneys and the revealing parallels that are contained in Sansa’s storyline, let’s spend a little time exploring just why tourneys are such a critical component of Sansa’s arc and development. Rivalled only by her younger brother Bran for her early idealism and valorisation of knighthood, Sansa begins the novel with starry-eyed beliefs that these warriors are fundamentally good and honourable, uphold a chivalric code of conduct, and behave as she puts it like “true knights.” Tourneys, with their grandeur and spectacle, initially dazzle and amaze the young girl we are introduced to in A Game of Thrones:

Sansa rode to the Hand’s tourney with Septa Mordane and Jeyne Poole, in a litter with curtains of yellow silk so fine she could see right through them. They turned the whole world gold. Beyond the city walls, a hundred pavilions had been raised beside the river, and the common folk came out in the thousands to watch the games. The splendor of it all took Sansa’s breath away; the shining armor, the great chargers caparisoned in silver and gold, the shouts of the crowd, the banners snapping in the wind . . . and the knights themselves, the knights most of all.

“It is better than the songs,” she whispered when they found the places that her father had promised her, among the high lords and ladies. Sansa was dressed beautifully that day, in a green gown that brought out the auburn of her hair, and she knew they were looking at her and smiling.

If tourneys are the staging ground for displays of jousting skills by knights, they become an important training ground for the elder Stark daughter, educating her in the violence and dishonourable tactics that can regularly occur, revealing and sharpening her empathetic skillset, and fostering her relationship with Sandor Clegane. Not to be overlooked is Lord Petyr Baelish, aka Littlefinger, who also initiates his connection to Sansa at the Hand’s tourney, transferring his ruthless obsession with Catelyn to her daughter, and begins to look for ways to exploit her naïveté. For all the passivity that appears to define Sansa’s time in captivity with the Lannisters, she plays a pivotal role at the two tourneys she attends, elevating her status from that of mere ornamentation and insignificant hostage.

By opening Sansa’s TWOW chapter with the plans for the imminent staging of a tourney of sixty-four competitors, Martin is confirming to the reader that whatever may develop out of this event with respect to her future prospects, a tourney is familiar territory for Sansa, and one where she has a habit of forming unusual and clandestine alliances. Although she is still in LF’s orbit of influence, Sansa is no longer imprisoned or cut off from potential sources of assistance. She is older and wiser, with considerably more self-confidence and daring, divorced from the childish estimation of knights, and in possession of a strategic understanding of the wants and desires that motivate those around her and how to manipulate such to her favour. It may not be overstating the matter to say that in agreeing to host the tourney, Littlefinger has opened up the possibility of Sansa having a key tactical advantage over him; especially when he later leaves it up to her to decide which knight will receive her favour. However, we cannot disregard LF’s own plans for this event, which are certain to be more complex and far-reaching than finding eight winged knights to act as Robert Arryn’s protectors.

Vile princes and kings

In The Hedge Knight, Ser Duncan the Tall attends the tourney in honour of Lord Ashford’s daughter who is celebrating her 13th birthday. This is the same age Joffrey turns when his own name day tourney is held in A Clash of Kings, and whose increasingly cruel behaviour calls to mind the disturbed nature of the Targaryen prince, Aerion Brightflame, who will maim Humfrey Hardyng at Ashford and later fight Dunk in a trial by seven after the hedge knight comes to the rescue of Tanselle Too Tall. Compare Aerion’s cruel treatment of Tanselle with Joff’s violence against Sansa and the disturbing parallel is all too clear:

The dragon puppet was scattered all about them, a broken wing here, its head there, its tail in three pieces. And in the midst of it all stood Prince Aerion, resplendent in red velvet doublet,
with long, dagged sleeves, twisting Tanselle’s arm in both hands. She was on her knees, pleading
with him. Aerion ignored her. He forced open her hand and seized one of her fingers. Dunk stood
there stupidly, not quite believing what he saw. Then he heard a crack, and Tanselle screamed.
(The Hedge Knight)

Knowing that Joffrey would require her to attend the tourney in his honor, Sansa had taken special care with her face and clothes. She wore a gown of pale purple silk and a moonstone hair net that had been a gift from Joffrey. The gown had long sleeves to hide the bruises on her arms. Those were Joffrey’s gifts as well. When they told him that Robb had been proclaimed King in the North, his rage had been a fearsome thing, and he had sent Ser Boros to beat her.
(Sansa I, ACOK)

It’s noteworthy that Sansa, like Dunk, performed her own brand of heroics at Joffrey’s tourney, when she convinced him not to kill the drunken knight Ser Dontos. Whilst the Vale tourney is mercifully free from the spectre of princely ire and madness, there are some characters that display the same kind of arrogance and hot-headed nature which could prove troublesome on the day. Sansa notes in particular the simmering rage of Ser Lyn Corbray. Couple this with the fact that Martin seems to be fond of having knights from the Vale meet their deaths at tournaments – in addition to Ser Humfrey at Ashford is the killing of Ser Hugh by Gregor Clegane at the Hand’s tourney – and we could be in for a similarly violent spectacle at the Gates. Relevant to this discussion is the theory that Littlefinger may have also played a role in the killing of Ser Hugh in order to thwart Ned Stark’s investigation into Jon Arryn’s death. This speculation is not unfounded given the other heartless tactics we have seen LF employ throughout the series.

Sansa’s position in the Vale is not like the one she occupied in KL – vulnerable and at the mercy of Joffrey’s cruel whims — yet she is not completely out of the woods as it relates to those who might try to do her harm. Martin has set up the likes of Corbray and Ser Shadrich as unpredictable characters, and there’s no telling how much Sansa’s true identity remains more of an open secret at this point.

The Ashford tourney ends in a trial of seven with Dunk and Aerion Brightflame fighting against each other alongside their respective champions. Notably, Catelyn witnessed a trial by combat at the Eyrie, and Sansa’s experiences there have tracked closely to her mother’s. During that trial between Tyrion’s champion Bronn and Ser Vardis Egen, Sweetrobin’s behaviour recalls the kind of infantile bloodlust exhibited by Joffrey, who also loved to suggest making men fight to the death:

“Make them fight!” Lord Robert called out.
Ser Vardis faced the Lord of the Eyrie and lifted his sword in salute. “For the Eyrie and Vale!”
Tyrion Lannister had been seated on a balcony across the garden, flanked by his guards. It was to him that Bronn turned with a cursory salute.
“They await your command,” Lady Lysa said to her lord son.
“Fight!” The boy screamed, his arms trembling as they clutched at his chair.

As the fighting ensues, Cat remembers the duel fought between LF and Brandon Stark, her betrothed, who agreed to spare the young Petyr on her behalf. Since then, LF claims to have learnt his lesson about his lack of martial prowess, but it’s worth considering if he could face a similar trial by combat in the Vale (or Winterfell) if his crimes are made known to the Lords there, and Sansa certainly has no similar incentive to spare him as her mother did. Perhaps SR will eventually get his wish to see the “bad little man” fly.

Sansa’s tourney and Littlefinger’s Plans

We learn in the sample chapter that the Vale tournament is being staged for the honour of serving as a member of Lord Robert’s Winged Knights:

Lord Robert’s mother had filled him full of fears, but he always took courage from the tales she read him of Ser Artys Arryn, the Winged Knight of legend, founder of his line. Why not surround him with Winged Knights? She had thought one night, after Sweetrobin had finally drifted off to sleep. His own Kingsguard, to keep him safe and make him brave.

It is a novel idea for a tourney up to this point in the series and one that aims to placate the irritable and insecure young Lord of the Eyrie. However, as the chapter develops, the curious fact emerges that this is an event seeming designed more to honour Sansa Stark than her cousin. I say Sansa Stark and not Alayne Stone deliberately, because the evidence suggests that Littlefinger has plans to declare her true identity. It is here that the past tourneys prove quite useful to study for elucidating the hidden workings at play in Sansa’s chapter, with precedent already set in Martin’s universe for a tourney that conceals its true purpose: the attempted Second Blackfyre rebellion in The Mystery Knight, which masqueraded as a mere wedding celebration for Lord Butterwell and his Frey bride.

The first hint that we have concerns Sansa’s thoughts about the tourney itself, which repeatedly highlight her role in its conception and organisation. It is a point of considerable pride for her:

The competitors came from all over the Vale, from the mountain valleys and the coast, from Gulltown and the Bloody Gate, even the Three Sisters. Though a few were promised, only three were wed; the eight victors would be expected to spend the next three years at Lord Robert’s side, as his own personal guard (Alayne had suggested seven, like the Kingsguard, but Sweetrobin had insisted that he must have more knights than King Tommen), so older men with wives and children had not been invited.

And they came, Alayne thought proudly. They all came.

It had fallen out just as Petyr said it would, the day the ravens flew. “They’re young, eager, hungry for adventure and renown. Lysa would not let them go to war. This is the next best thing. A chance to serve their lord and prove their prowess. They will come. Even Harry the Heir.” He had smoothed her hair and kissed her forehead. “What a clever daughter you are.”

It was clever. The tourney, the prizes, the winged knights, it had all been her own notion. 

Is LF complimenting Sansa for her own sake here, or is his pride in her cleverness because it serves to further his own ends? That he has repeatedly misled her and exploited her ignorance of his true intentions makes a strong argument for the latter interpretation. Regardless, Sansa has taken personal responsibility for this tourney, and it is closely linked with her particular desires and personal history – not Alayne’s. Sourcing knights to serve SR looks to only be a thin cover for a tourney that will have much bigger implications for its hostess.

The conversation Sansa has with Littlefinger when she journeys below to the vaults provides additional evidence that something is afoot regarding her true identity and the real purpose for staging this event. As LF attempts to calm her anxiety regarding Harry, we read:

“…Bringing Harry here was the first step in our plan, but now we need to keep him, and only you can do that.  He has a weakness for a pretty face, and whose face is prettier than yours?  Charm him.  Entrance him.  Bewitch him.”

“I don’t know how,” she said miserably.

“Oh, I think you do,” said Littlefinger, with one of those smiles that did not reach his eyes.  “You will be the most beautiful woman in the hall tonight, as lovely as your lady mother at your age.  I cannot seat you on the dais, but you’ll have a place of honor above the salt and underneath a wall sconce.  The fire will be shining in your hair, so everyone will see how fair of face you are.  Keep a good long spoon on hand to beat the squires off, sweetling. You will not want green boys underfoot when the knights come round to beg you for your favor.”

There are two important points relating to Sansa’s identity in this exchange with LF. Firstly, he mentions her resemblance to Catelyn, a direct association between Sansa and her mother that highlights her real parentage. Secondly, and more subtly, he notes that the “fire will be shining in your hair” – a very suggestive description that alludes to Sansa’s natural auburn colour showing once again. It all results in the impression that Sansa is looking very much like Sansa again and, more importantly, that LF doesn’t seem all that concerned about hiding this from the gathered guests. Another intriguing possibility raised by readers is that LF is slipping, that his obsession with his Catelyn proxy is quite literally blinding him to her identity as Sansa Stark which will come back to bite him/could have profound consequences at the tourney. To extend this latter reading, let’s look at the parallel to their first meeting at the Hand’s tourney in King’s Landing:

When Sansa finally looked up, a man was standing over her, staring. He was short, with a pointed beard and a silver streak in his hair, almost as old as her father. “You must be one of her daughters,” he said to her. He had grey-green eyes that did not smile when his mouth did. “You have the Tully look.”

“I’m Sansa Stark,” she said, ill at ease…

“Your mother was my queen of beauty once,” the man said quietly. His breath smelled of mint. “You have her hair.” His fingers brushed against her cheek as he stroked one auburn lock. Quite abruptly he turned and walked away.

The pertinent details relate to LF’s complete association of Sansa to her mother, whom he states was once his “queen of beauty.” Stroking a lock of Sansa’s auburn hair reinforces how much she looks like Catelyn and the attraction it sparks in him as a result. However, notice Sansa’s interjection that LF seemingly does not even hear or chooses to ignore. She asserts that “I’m Sansa Stark” after he tells her she has the Tully look and feels “ill at ease.” I want to stress that the two theories explaining Sansa’s conversation with LF in the vaults — he is aware of her auburn hair showing and wants to highlight it vs. he continues to over-identify Sansa with her mother and what this reveals about his ultimate plans (and their likely success or failure) — are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, it could be argued that it is LF’s obsessive compulsion to regain what he believes should have been his in the first place, along with all the power and privilege he can accrue, that is the governing principle behind all the chaos he has unleashed.

The feast in the night where Sansa holds court as LF promises also has parallels to other major feasts we have seen in the series. The similarity to the Purple Wedding with the extravagant number of dishes has been noted by other commenters, with the inherent symbolism of wastefulness and contempt for the starving populations across Westeros. To begin with the Hand’s tourney, however, we see some telling similarities – right down to the type of dessert served:

Six monstrous huge aurochs had been roasting for hours, turning slowly on wooden spits while kitchen boys basted them with butter and herbs until the meat crackled and spit. Tables and benches had been raised outside the pavilions, piled high with sweetgrass and strawberries and fresh-baked bread…

All the while the courses came and went. A thick soup of barley and venison. Salads of sweetgrass and spinach and plums, sprinkled with crushed nuts. Snails in honey and garlic. Sansa had never eaten snails before; Joffrey showed her how to get the snail out of the shell and fed her the first sweet morsel himself. Then came trout fresh from the river, baked in clay; her prince helped her crack open the hard casing to expose the flaky white flesh within. And when the meat course was brought out he served her himself, slicing a queen’s portion from the joint, smiling as he laid it on her plate…

Later came sweetbreads and pigeon pie and baked apples fragrant with cinnamon and lemon cakes frosted in sugar, but by then Sansa was so stuffed that she could not manage more than two little lemon cakes, as much as she loved them. She was wondering whether she might attempt a third when the king began to shout. (Sansa II, AGOT)

———-

Sixty-four dishes were served, in honor of the sixty-four competitors who had come so far to
contest or the silver wings before their lord. From the rivers and the lakes came pike and trout and salmon, from the seas crab and cod and herring. Ducks there were, and capons, peacocks in their plumage and swans in almond milk. Suckling pigs were served up crackling with apples in their mouths, and three huge aurochs were roasted whole above the firepits in the castle yard, since they were too big to get through the kitchen doors. Loaves of hot bread filled the trestle tables in Lord Nestor’s hall and massive wheels of cheese were brought up from the vaults. The butter was fresh-churned, and there were leeks and carrots, roasted onions, beets, turnips, parsnips. And best of all, Lord Nestor’s cooks prepared a splendid subtlety, a lemon cake in the shape of the Giant’s Lance, twelve feet tall and adorned with an Eyrie made of sugar.

For me, Alayne thought, as they wheeled it out. Sweetrobin loved lemon cakes too, but only after she told him that they were her favorites. The cake had required every lemon in the Vale, but Petyr had promised that he would send to Dorne for more. (Alayne sample, TWOW)

So at both feasts we see Sansa being served with lemoncakes frosted in sugar, the first time when she still expects to eventually become Joffrey’s queen. Lemons in the series have been associated with innocence, childhood, and longing for a return to happier times. Daenerys thinks fondly, for example, of the house with the lemon tree in Braavos. For Sansa’s characterisation, however, whilst lemons do undoubtedly hold a similar kind of symbolism due to her childlike devotion to them, whenever she is served them by others there is always some deception and manipulation involved. In studying the references to lemoncakes in her arc, the pattern is revealing:

  • At the Hand’s tourney, Joffrey begins to treat Sansa more kindly again and she is unaware of his true nature. Readers know that Joffrey isn’t at all what he seems, and his indulgent attention to Sansa is only a momentary guise of gallantry. Sansa is already “stuffed” by the time the lemoncakes arrive, but her love of them leads her to at least attempt eating a few. We will see Sansa make a similarly concentrated attempt to believe in Joffrey’s goodness until his base cruelty is revealed when he kills her father.
  • In the chapter where Sansa remembers the next encounter she has with Littlefinger at court, she and Jeyne go looking for lemon cakes but have to settle for strawberry pie. Here we see the lack of lemon cakes symbolising the absence of any retreat into familiar reassurances/safety where LF is concerned. When she tells him of her belief in “monsters and heroes” for the reason why Ned should have sent Loras Tyrell to kill Gregor Clegane, his reply leaves her deeply unsettled: “Life is not a song, sweetling. You may learn that one day to your sorrow.”
  • In A Storm of Swords, Sansa meets with the Tyrell family and is given the hope of marriage to Willas Tyrell and freedom from the Lannisters. During her initial meeting with them and after, we read of the frequent consumption of lemon cakes, as she comes to think of the Tyrell women as true friends and allies:

“Sansa,” Lady Alerie broke in, “you must be very hungry. Shall we have a bit of boar together, and some lemon cakes?”

“Lemon cakes are my favourite,” Sansa admitted.
“So we have been told,” declared Lady Olenna, who obviously had no intention of being hushed. “That Varys creature seemed to think we should be grateful for the information…” (Sansa I, ASOS)

———-

The cousins took Sansa into their company as if they had known her all their lives. They spent long afternoons doing needlework and talking over lemon cakes and honeyed wine, playing at tiles of an evening, sang together in the castle sept… and after one or two of them would be chosen to share Margaery’s bed, where they would whisper half the night away.
(Sansa II, ASOS)

Alerie’s suggestion of boar and lemon cakes highlights the dual symbolism of regime change by ultimately plotting Joffrey’s murder and their plans to take advantage of Sansa’s status and claim for their own ends. As Sansa will learn when she is forcefully wed to Tyrion Lannister, the Tyrells were never genuinely her friends, and once she is no longer available to be married into their family, they cease their association with her.

  • The next time lemon cakes are mentioned in Sansa’s chapters occurs in A Feast for Crows, when she promises them to Sweetrobin as an inducement to get him out of bed to depart the Eyrie before winter closes in. Once they arrive at the Gates of the Moon and she is ushered in to Littlefinger’s solar, Sansa mentions lemons as one of her guesses on LF’s prompting:

“I have brought my sweet girl back a gift.”
Alayne was as pleased as she was surprised. “Is it a gown?” She had heard they were fine seamstresses in Gulltown, and she was so tired of dressing drably.
“Something better. Guess again.”
“Jewels?”
“No jewels could hope to match my daughter’s eyes.”
“Lemons? Did you find some lemons?” She had promised Sweetrobin lemon cake, and for lemon cake you needed lemons.
Petyr Baelish took her by the hand and drew her down onto his lap. “I have made a marriage contract for you.”
“A marriage…” Her throat tightened. She did not want to be wed again, not now, perhaps not ever.

Once again, we see Sansa’s attempt to normalise the circumstances of her relationship with LF fail. This is highlighted by the symbolic lack of lemon cakes, which she had hoped to secure for Sweetrobin, but is instead met with the news of another marriage pact that understandably reawakens her fears of exploitation and loss of agency.

Taken all together, the lemon cake references provide us with the symbolic clues through which to view the appearance of the giant lemon cake lance at the feast in TWOW. LF is attempting to manipulate Sansa, but this time it is no ordinary machination. After all, the cake has taken every single lemon in the Vale to bake it, suggesting that whatever LF has in mind it is going to considerably momentous. As noted, lemon cakes in Sansa’s arc strongly correspond to the theme of appearance vs. reality as it relates to people hiding their true intentions or character. It raises the question of just what LF is planning; why has he used every lemon in the Vale to bake a cake for Alayne at a public event, when it is widely known as Sansa Stark’s favourite dessert? Why did he readily agree to organise this elaborate event at the Gates of the Moon, inviting young knights sworn to the Vale and hosting them with no expense spared?

An answer to these questions might be found in that last AFFC chapter when LF tells Sansa about the marriage pact. Right before this, he makes a very cryptic remark that has been the subject of much speculation:

“You would not believe half of what is happening in King’s Landing, sweetling. Cersei stumbles from one idiocy to the next, helped along by her council of the deaf, the dim, and the blind. I always anticipated that she would beggar the realm and destroy herself, but I never expected she would do it quite so fast. It is quite vexing. I had hoped to have four or five quiet years to plant some seeds and allow some fruits to ripen, but now…it is a good thing I thrive on chaos. What little peace and order the five kings left us will not long survive the three queens, I fear.”

“Three queens?” She did not understand.

Nor did Petyr choose to explain.

There are a couple reasons to speculate that LF has included Sansa as one of these three warring queens he mentions. In examining his statement closely, we glean that LF is not merely speaking abstractly about coming events that have nothing to do with him. Instead, he implicates himself directly by stating that he had hoped for more time to allow “some fruits to ripen” but that he thrives on chaos. I’d argue that the fruit he was most interested in ripening was Sansa Stark herself, allowing her to further mature, and giving himself time to have her completely under his thumb. The next reason is that he very deliberately chooses not to inform Sansa of the identities of these three queens. Instead, he goes on to tell her of the marriage pact which ends with the promise of retaking Winterfell once she marries Harry the Heir and Sweetrobin dies. Refusing to answer Sansa’s query suggests that Littlefinger has something to hide, and the most plausible answer to why he has something to hide is because it involves Sansa – in a much more prominent role than she could ever imagine.

If LF is planning to declare Sansa as Queen of the North, he could hardly have chosen a more auspicious place to do so. The tourney, with its knights hungry for service and eager for honour, seems tailor-made for making a declaration of a new queen — the last known remaining Stark and rightful ruler of the North — especially when the houses of the Vale had been eager to fight for Robb but denied by Lysa Arryn. Sansa becoming a queen also ties together the foreshadowing of her thoughts when she is with Cersei in the Red Keep – “If I am ever a queen, I’ll make them love me” – and when she meets Bronze Yohn Royce at the Eyrie and thinks that he never fought for Robb, so why would he fight for her.

Before we move onto looking at more food symbolism at the other feasts, there’s another aspect to the lemon cakes that bears brief exploration as I think it presents us with foreshadowing of Littlefinger attempting to make a marriage alliance with the newly landed Aegon, who alleges to be Rhaegar Targaryen’s son:

The cake had required every lemon in the Vale, but Petyr had promised that he would send to Dorne for more.

In Arianne’s two chapters from TWOW, we learn that she is on her way to meet with Aegon on behalf of Dorne, in order to ascertain whether he is truly Rhaegar’s heir. The letter that Connington sends to Doran reads as follows:

            To Prince Doran of House Martell,
You will remember me, I pray. I knew your sister well,
and was a leal servant of your good-brother. I grieve
for them as you do. I did not die, no more than did
your sister’s son. To save his life we kept him hidden,
but the time for hiding is done. A dragon has returned
to Westeros to claim his birthright and seek vengeance
for his father, and for the princess Elia, his mother.
In her name I turn to Dorne. Do not forsake us.
Jon Connington
Lord of Griffin’s Roost
Hand of the True King

With the evidence pointing to lemon cakes being tied to underhanded/manipulative situations in Sansa’s story, Petyr’s sending to Dorne for more lemons suggests him attempting to make an alliance with the one other region outside of the Vale that has not yet entered the war. Right now, Dorne’s decision hinges on what Arianne reports back to her father about Aegon’s identity and chances of success in claiming the Iron Throne. With Dany out of the picture for the time being, a marriage alliance to Sansa Stark of the North, who can deliver the Vale swords would be quite an advantageous match for the young prince.

Sansa’s TWOW chapter hints at important news having reached Littlefinger via Oswell, who arrives from Gulltown on a “lathered horse.” In looking at the ASOIAF timeline, Sansa’s descent from the Eyrie happened in the middle of May, and we know her chapter in TWOW picks up several months later, as she observes that “though snow had blanketed the heights of the Giant’s Lance above, below the mountain the autumn lingered and winter wheat was ripening in the fields.” If we assume an approximate date of late summer/early fall, Sansa’s TWOW chapter puts us somewhere near the middle to late August, and according to the timeline, Arianne learns of Aegon having taken Storm’s End around July 17th. All this means that it is possible for LF to know of Aegon and his success so far with the Golden Company.

Having considered this, it’s important to point out that the lemon cake associated betrothals for Sansa have all failed. She doesn’t end up having to marry Joffrey, and the Willas match is discovered by the Lannisters, leading to forced union with Tyrion Lannister, which as yet still protects her from any other marriages taking place. Martin also seems to be playing with the tourney imagery in having Aegon meet with yet another “Elia” in Oberyn Martell’s bastard daughter Elia Sand, who is nicknamed “Lady Lance” and is skilled at riding and jousting. Of course, it is the wolf-maid Sansa who is organising an actual tourney that could result in her being crowned as queen, following in the tradition of her aunt Lyanna Stark, whom Rhaegar chose over Elia as his queen of love and beauty. This reversal could see Elia being the one to secure Aegon’s affection and Sansa ultimately avoiding a return to Southron politics and game-playing as Aegon’s sure to be ill-fated wife.

Roasted peacocks and boar

The Mystery Knight details the attempted Second Blackfyre Rebellion, where lords still loyal to Black dragons gathered at Whitehalls in order to plot to overthrow the Targaryen king and seat Daemon II Blackfyre on the throne. On the basis of the “secret heir in disguise with sympathetic lords all around” alone, we can see a direct link to Sansa’s situation at the Gates.

One of the early hints we have of the planned regime change in the novella is when boar is served at the inn where Dunk and Egg hope to eat and rest, but are instead turned away and have to seek shelter with three hedge knights nearby:

A good smell was drifting out the windows of the inn, one that made Dunk’s mouth water. “We might like some of what you’re roasting, if it’s not too costly.”

“It’s wild boar,” the woman said, “well-peppered, and served with onions, mushrooms, and mashed neeps.”

Once at the castle, Dunk attends the wedding feast and the similarities between the dishes there and at Sansa’s pre-tourney feast are striking:

Suckling pig was served at the high table; a peacock roasted in its plumage; a great pike crusted with crushed almonds. Not a bite of that made it down below the salt. Instead of suckling pig they got salt pork, soaked in almond milk and peppered pleasantly. In place of peacock they had capons, crisped up nice and brown and stuffed with onions, herbs, mushrooms and roasted chestnuts. In place of pike they ate chunks of flaky white cod in a pastry coffyn, with some sort of tasty brown sauce that Dunk could not quite place. There was pease porridge besides; buttered turnips; carrots drizzled with honey; and a ripe white cheese that smelled as strong as Bennis of the Brown Shield. (The Mystery Knight)

———-

Sixty-four dishes were served, in honor of the sixty-four competitors who had come so far to contest for silver wings before their lord. From the rivers and the lakes came pike and trout and salmon, from the seas crabs and cod and herring. Ducks there were, and capons, peacocks in their plumage and swans in almond milk. Suckling pigs were served up crackling with apples in their mouths, and three huge aurochs were roasted whole above firepits in the castle yard, since they were too big to get through the kitchen doors. Loaves of hot bread filled the trestle tables in Lord Nestor’s hall, and massive wheels of cheese were brought up from the vaults.  The butter was fresh-churned, and there were leeks and carrots, roasted onions, beets, turnips, parsnips. (Alayne sample, TWOW)                                                                    

Out of this bounty of food porn, a few dishes standout: the “peacocks in their plumage,” “suckling pigs,” and the “great pike crusted with crushed almonds.” These are all the dishes that are served for the nobles at Whitehalls, or above the salt as Dunk observes, and we see them again featured at the pre-tourney feast in the Vale. Leaving aside the latter two for now, I want to focus on the peacock entrée, because in addition to these examples, it is mentioned only one other time in the series – at the Purple Wedding.

Then the heralds summoned another singer; Collio Quaynis of Tyrosh, who had a vermillion beard and an accent as ludicrous as Symon had promised. Collio began his version of “The Dance of Dragons” which was more properly a song for two singers, male and female. Tyrion suffered through it with a double helping of honey-ginger partridge and several cups of wine. A haunting ballad of two dying lovers amidst the Doom of Valyria might have pleased the hall more if Collio had not sung it in High Valyrian, which most of the guests could not speak. But “Bessa the Barmaid” won them back with ribald lyrics. Peacocks were served in their plumage, roasted whole and stuffed with dates, while Collio summoned a drummer, bowed low before Lord Tywin, and launched into the “The Rains of Castamere.”

Given how the Purple Wedding ends – Joffrey’s death, Tyrion framed for the murder – “peacocks roasted in the plumage” appears to be symbolic of those who are killed or undermined at a moment of celebration or impending victory. The same is evident for the conspirators at the Whitehalls tourney, who are discovered before their rebellion can gain any traction. The saying “to strut around like a peacock” is to display an attitude of overt pride and confidence that borders on arrogance. The plumage of the peacock — its impressive display of brightly coloured feathers – is the symbol of that pride, and as it so happens, there is one character in Sansa’s arc who has a noted preference for brightly coloured, almost gaudy clothing throughout the series. Is LF the only peacock at the Vale whose plans might be upset? He’s certainly the most major one, yet there are other potential candidates like Ser Lyn Corbray, last seen bashing in the head of a hapless knight, or someone like Harry the Heir, whose initial sneering at Sansa and poor jousting skills don’t bode well for his prospects as either a suitor or champion. We also cannot discount the appearance of an outside force, such as the Mountain clans – newly armed with steel weaponry – who could find a way to infiltrate the Gates and cause widespread destruction, thereby “roasting” the many peacocks represented by the knightly gathering.

If our food symbolism is to bear out, it stands to reason that as we see boar being roasted in The Mystery Knight, it should also be present at the Purple Wedding and in Sansa’s pre-tourney chapter. Tyrion is our gastronomical guide during the excesses of Joffrey’s wedding feast, and sure enough we find this line as he indulges his appetite:

Tyrion listened with half an ear, as he sampled sweetcorn fritters and hot oatbread backed with bits of date, apple, and orange, and gnawed on the rib of a wild boar.

Yet we have no mention of boar being eaten at the pre-tourney feast in TWOW or anywhere else in the chapter. My theory is that instead of highlighting boars at the feast, Martin has cleverly depicted these wild animals in another location, which Alayne casually calls to our attention by way of walking through the castle on her way to locating Littlefinger:

Alayne swept down the tower stairs to enter the pillared gallery at the back of the Great Hall. Below her, serving men were setting up trestle tables for the evening feast, while their wives and daughters swept up the old rushes and scattered fresh ones. Lord Nestor was showing Lady Waxley his prize tapestries, with their scenes of hunt and chase. The same panels had once hung in the Red Keep of King’s Landing, when Robert sat the Iron Throne. Joffrey had them taken down and they had languished in some cellar until Petyr Baelish arranged for them to be brought to the Vale as a gift for Nestor Royce. Not only were the hangings beautiful, but the High Steward delighted in telling anyone who’d listen that they had once belonged to a king.

Hunt and chase — the very activity that leads to Robert’s death, and a favourite pastime of the King’s that Ned recalls in AGOT as he tries to comfort the despondent Barristan Selmy:

“Even the truest knight cannot protect a king against himself,” Ned said. “Robert loved to hunt boar. I have seen take him a thousand of them.” He would stand his ground without flinching, his legs braced, the great spear in his hands, and as often as not he would curse the boar as it charged, and wait until the last possible second, until it was almost on him, before he killed it with a single sure and savage thrust.

Other mentions of the tapestries all reinforce the hunting imagery. In the throne room right before Ned’s arrest, he observes the gold cloaks, standing by the walls “in front of Robert’s tapestries with their scenes of hunt and battle”. Later on, Sansa will observe the throne room “stripped bare, the hunting tapestries that King Robert loved taken down and stacked in the corner in an untidy heap.” The Vale declaring for Sansa as Queen of the North would represent a significant regime change that threatens the Lannister/Tyrell power in the South; even more so if the Vale decides to enter the war and fight on Aegon’s behalf.  Yet, it’s worth noting that the mere nature of “hunt and chase” for the boar symbolism could indicate that LF loses control of the regime change he has put into motion. Unlike at his wedding to Lysa Arryn, where roast boar is served and she later meets a tragic end through the moon door, this one might not turn out to be so straightforward to engineer and direct.

The Mystery Knights of the Vale

“Every wedding needs a singer, and every tourney needs a mystery knight.”
                                                                                                  Ser John the Fiddler

If we are to adhere to the Fiddler’s declaration in the above statement, Martin is overdue in writing of a mystery knight making an appearance at a tournament. The only ones we are privy to in some detail are the Knight of the Laughing Tree – widely considered in the fandom to be Lyanna Stark – and Dunk as the Gallows Knight. The appearance of a mystery knight in the lists at the Vale tourney would seem to be unlikely given that all the competitors have been specially invited and all appear to be accounted for at this point in time. Yet, the parallels between Sansa’s TWOW chapter and The Mystery Knight, coupled with her familial connection to Lyanna and what we learn of how the Harrenhal tourney plays out, make for a convincing case that Martin will feature a mystery knight in the Vale in some form or fashion.

In A Storm of Swords, Meera tells Bran about the story of the Knight of the Laughing Tree, who appears as a mystery knight at the Harrenhal tourney and challenges the knights whose squires were responsible for hurting a crannogman from the Neck. Bran listens to the story and thinks:

Mystery knights would oft appear at tourneys, with helms concealing their faces, and shields that were either blank or bore some strange device. Sometimes they were famous champions in disguise. The Dragonknight once won a tourney as the Knight of Tears, so he could name his sister the queen of love and beauty in place of the king’s mistress. And Barristan the Bold twice donned a mystery knight’s armor, the first time when he was only ten.

The Mystery Knight novella features Dunk appearing as the Gallows Knight, and other characters that are also concealing their true identities and motives. There is Ser John the Fiddler, who is really Daemon II Blackfyre; Ser Glendon Flowers, who reveals that he is the illegitimate son of Ser Quentyn Ball; and Ser Maynard Plumm, who is most likely Bloodraven under the disguise of a glamor. Dunk eventually discovers and helps to scuttle the plans of the conspirators at the tourney, who are using the wedding to secretly plot a rebellion against Aerys I.

This is likely Martin’s last chance to introduce a mystery knight at a tourney in the series, and he has already established a suspicious cast of characters around Sansa in the Vale who could play important roles in how the plot unfolds there. We may not get to see the classic mystery knight figure that Bran recalls, but there are a few candidates who are worthy of consideration, both for their current proximity to Sansa, and others who are relevant because of their shared personal history and connection to the relevant themes in her development.

Contenders inside the Vale:

Ser Shadrich, Ser Morgarth, Ser Byron:  It’s safe bet that the three hedge knights Alayne meets when she descends the Eyrie are not telling the truth about their real identities/motives. We already know that Shadrich is a bounty hunter on the lookout for Sansa Stark, and appears to know he has found her by his comments in TWOW:

“A good melee is all a hedge knight can hope for, unless he stumbles on a bag of dragons. And that’s not likely, is it?”

Regular followers of Pawn to Player would be familiar with our theory that Ser Morgarth is really the Elder Brother from the QI. Sansa also dances with all three of the hedge knights at the feast, so Martin does appear to be keeping them at the forefront of our thoughts for a reason.

Ser Lyn Corbray

The wielder of Lady Forlorn has to be considered as another contender based on Sansa’s observations that he appears to hold a significant amount of genuine dislike against LF for arranging his brother’s marriage, even though he is supposedly working for LF’s interests in secret. Lyn is a highly ambitious man and is obviously not content with gold and boys. If he acts to undermine LF at the tourney, it could prove disastrous for the mockingbird.

Sansa’s champion

Who is the knight that Sansa will select to wear her favour? It’s a seemingly inconsequential choice as suggested by LF, who merely tells her to choose another so not as to overly flatter Harry. But is it merely a trivial detail for Sansa? Throughout the series, Sansa has prayed for a true knight or champion at different moments of crisis, and has been uniformly disappointed by the ones that appeared to care for her or genuinely want to help her. There is no better example of the ruined institution of knighthood than the Kingsguard, who were routinely employed by Joffrey to abuse Sansa in King’s Landing. Although she no longer holds the naïve view of knights being essentially good and honourable, it does not mean that the knight Sansa chooses to wear her favour may not still represent the greater potential of that ideal. Regardless of the basis upon which she makes her decision, Sansa has the chance to make an autonomous choice that could have significant consequences. (Incidentally, LF does not have good luck when it comes to favours; Cat gave her handscarf to Brandon in the fight against him at Riverrun, after Petyr pleaded with her to give him her favour instead.)

Contenders outside the Vale:

Sandor Clegane

Any speculation of mystery knights in Sansa’s arc would be remiss not to include Sandor Clegane. Last seen performing gravedigging duties at the Quiet Isle, Sandor is not believed to be in the Vale; however, present or not at this tourney, Sandor is the one who has consistently acted as Sansa’s champion during their time together. The Hound is famous for his opinions on the hypocrisy and falsity of knighthood, and undoubtedly is responsible for much of the enlightenment and maturity Sansa achieves over time. But their relationship is a two-way street, with Sansa having just as much, if not more, of an impact on his character development; arguably being a major deciding factor in his break from the Lannisters, and inspiring the desire to be his “own dog now.” The Elder Brother tells us that the Hound is dead, while Sandor Clegane is “at rest.” This distinction sets up an interesting identity angle for Martin to explore, in addition to the false rumours of the Hound being responsible for the atrocities at Saltpans necessitating a need for continued concealment on Sandor’s part.

Having played notable roles at the two previous tourneys in the series, both of them involving close contact with Sansa and providing crucial assistance to her, it begs the question if an appearance by Sandor at the third such event isn’t of vital importance to the narrative structure and thematic continuity of their relationship. I would argue that this is why he is conspicuously absent from the pre-tourney chapter in Sansa’s thoughts. Whether he makes a physical return or Sansa recalls a memory about him, Martin intends for it to be of some import.

Sandor’s significance as a mystery non-knight for Sansa is perhaps most invaluable because Littlefinger does not know about it. Not only does she venerate Sandor in terms of truth-telling, but Martin has established a romantic connection between the two that has managed to persist despite a long separation. One of LF’s primary means of control over Sansa is to constantly set up but ultimately undermine any potential suitor or love interest. It’s one of the reasons why I expect the Harry the Heir betrothal to come to naught. LF’s obsession with Sansa, arising from the denial of Catelyn who was his primary love object, causes him to compulsively repeat the act of vanquishing a rival. As the tourney is arranged, LF plainly does not expect any surprises regarding Sansa’s affections, believing that he has successfully manipulated and monopolized her attention with Harry the Heir.

Where matters of the heart are concerned, tourneys can be game changers, and this is why his gamble with Sansa’s favour could backfire. Recall the Hand’s tourney when LF is so certain that the Hound will lose to Jaime Lannister because “hungry dogs know better than to bite the hand that feeds them.” It turned out that Sandor Clegane didn’t know any better, and LF loses his bet to Renly Baratheon. Since then, we have to ask ourselves if LF has gotten any wiser regarding what truly motivates and inspires others. Taking Lyn Corbray as a case study, the answer appears to be no. When at the Fingers, LF poses a question to Sansa, asking: “which is more dangerous, the knife brandished by an enemy or the hidden dagger pressed to your back that you never even see?” What would he have to say about the hidden rival?

Bran Stark

The idea of Bran Stark influencing events in Sansa’s storyline is a compelling one for many reasons. As things stand in the present, Bran is the one Stark with the growing powers to reach out to his siblings and gain insight into their respective circumstances, opening up the possibility that he could be a source of assistance in the future. As Bloodraven promises him in the cave:

Once you have mastered your gifts, you may look where you will and see what the trees have seen, be it yesterday or last year or a thousand years past… Nor will your sight be limited to your godswood. The singers carved eyes into their heart trees to awaken them, and those are the first eyes a new greenseer learns to use… but in time you will see well beyond the trees themselves.

It’s been noted that the “winged knight” tourney could be thought of as an allusion to Bran, and readers are privy to his continued longing for the dreams of knighthood he held as a young boy. Even as late as ADWD, we see him expressing the sorrow of ultimately becoming like his mentor:

One day I will be like him. The thought filled Bran with dread. Bad enough that he was broken, with his useless legs. Was he doomed to lose the rest too, to spend all of his years with a weirwood growing in him and through him? … I was going to be a knight, Bran remembered. I used to run and climb and fight. It seemed a thousand years ago.

What was he now? Only Bran the broken boy, Brandon of House Stark, prince of a lost kingdom, lord of a burned castle, heir to ruins… A thousand eyes, a hundred skins, wisdom as deep as the roots of ancient trees. That was as good as being a knight. Almost as good, anyway.

None of this offers conclusive evidence of a Bran intervention, but it does align him thematically with what is happening currently in the Vale, especially when we factor in the story of the Knight of the Laughing Tree. Bran likes the tale, but has ideas for how it could be even better:

“That was a good story. But is should have been the three bad knights who hurt him, not their squires. Then the little crannogman could have killed them all. The part about the ransoms was stupid. And the mystery knight should win the tourney, defeating every challenger, and name the wolf-maid the queen of love and beauty.”

The wolf-maid becoming queen of love and beauty is what happened to Lyanna Stark, whereas there’s the possibility of Sansa becoming an actual queen by the end of her tourney. Could a mystery knight be the one to undermine LF’s plans and steal the wolf-maid away as Rhaegar Targaryen is alleged to have done with Sansa’s aunt?

Final observations:

Pawn to Player has never been in the business of the making predictions, so I will refrain from making any explicit ones and stick to what this all means for Sansa’s character development. Like all the Stark children, Sansa is under the guidance of a dubious and duplicitous mentor, but the Vale is where we see her maturing and honing the skills that should allow her to break free of LF’s influence. Becoming a queen is not Sansa’s endgame in the sense of her ruling the North in her own right or acting as a queen consort to a King. Sansa’s arc has tracked towards self-empowerment not traditional institutional power. It is about her ultimately possessing the agency and authority to decide what it is she wants and how she can effectively help others. It is about her no longer being manipulated and exploited by those around her. If there’s one thing we know about wearing crowns in ASOIAF is that the likelihood of that manipulation only increases. Sansa’s brothers are still alive and there is Robb’s will that has not yet surfaced naming Jon as his successor. If Sansa is to become queen in this interim period, then her control of the Vale army will have important ramifications for how the remainder of the unrest in Westeros plays out, likely in the North. Home and belonging remain crucial themes in her arc, and the memories of Winterfell and her family strongly resonate throughout the sample chapter. The Sansa we witness in this chapter is on the cusp – of womanhood, power, and reclaiming her true identity.

Points of Foreshadowing/Curious details/Questions for further analysis:

  • “They’re from the Sisters. Did you ever know a Sisterman who could joust?” – Well, as a matter of fact, Myranda, she just might have. If there’s anyone who deserves the title of “sisterman” it’s Sandor Clegane, who has been connected to both Sansa and Arya as a protector figure.
  • Harry the Heir, Alayne thought. My husband-to-be, if he will have me. A sudden terror filled her.  She wondered if her face was red. Don’t stare at him, she reminded herself, don’t stare, don’t gape, don’t gawkLook away. Her hair must be a frightful mess after all that running.  It took all her will to stop herself from trying to tuck the loose strands back into place. Never mind your stupid hair.  Your hair doesn’t matter.  It’s him that matters.  Him, and the Waynwoods. – Trying to stop worrying about her “stupid hair” and thinking that it doesn’t matter seems like another blaring signal that actually it does, and this supports what LF will later tell her in the vaults about the fire shining in her hair.
  • What is Sansa wearing in this chapter? For someone who usually loves to describe what Sansa is wearing, Martin is silent on the matter. Even at the feast when Sansa is the centre of attention, we get no description. Clothing symbolism is an important element in analysing Sansa’s chapters, so this is a curiously missing detail.
  • Why is SR so calm at the feast? Alayne notes that he would have been given a strong dose of sweetmilk beforehand, but even she is still worried that the aggravation of seeing her with Harry might cause him to have a seizure. Furthermore, we saw SR wiping his nose when Sansa is with him earlier in the day. This may be a bad sign that the young lord is already dangerously overdosed, as the maester had previously expressed concerns in AFFC about whether he was bleeding from the nose.
  • Food symbolism that still needs to be analysed: suckling pigs and pike.
  • Ser Artys Arryn – conflated as the Winged Knight of legend — is said to have defeated the Griffin King. Jon Connington is the Lord of Griffin’s Roost and Hand of the King. Is the premise of the Winged Knight tourney itself a foreshadowing of the Vale not allying with Aegon?

(This essay is indebted to the great discussions that took place in the Pawn to Player thread at Westeros.org when the sample chapter was released two years ago.)

 

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Fair Game: The Documentary

 

by Miodrag Zarković

It’s been almost a year since I announced, on this very website, my intention to make a documentary about a paper tiger that is the critical acclaim for Game of Thrones.

Hopefully, it wasn’t a wasted time, because the documentary is finally here, titled Fair Game: The Critical Universe around HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’.

It will be released on May 3rd on the Internet. It’s appropriate, I think, because the good old web is the only place where countless issues many of the viewers have with that show are addressed. Elsewhere, and in the mainstream media, a certain “Emperor’s New Clothes” routine continues even though the sixth season promises to be even worse than the previous ones.

I honestly hope that Fair Game will be watchable even for those who like Game of Thrones, partly because the documentary is not an attempt at changing anyone’s mind. Everyone’s entitled to feel whatever they do about the show. What Fair Game tries to establish is that we that drastically dislike the show have very legitimate reasons and a firm basis for our opinion, and that that opinion isn’t rooted in some irrational hatred towards the showrunners, nor is it directed at show fans.

The only irrational thing in all this is that our opinion is silenced and marginalized by the mainstream. Or, as one of the interviewees for Fair Game phrased it, that an opinion of dissent is left behind. That is the only real problem in the critical universe centered on Game of Thrones, and that is the main topic of Fair Game.

Critical voices shouldn’t be sidelined so easily. Whatever the subject may be. Period.

 

To Kill a Mockingbird

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What is Littlefinger’s Agenda?

Part I of an in-depth analysis of Petyr Baelish’s modus operandi and planning.

by Ragnorak

petyr_littlefinger_baelish_by_prokrik-d8hbcd2.png© Artwork by ProKriK

By the time we reach the Alayne gift chapter from The Winds of Winter, we have a long history of Littlefinger’s scheming. Looking at patterns in his behavior, plots, and modus operandi might offer clues as to his future plans.

Petyr’s first scheme dates back to his time at Riverrun when the arrival of the feuding lords Bracken and Blackwood allowed young Baelish and the Tully children to get good and truly drunk. The scheme is rather adolescent and hardly original, applying alcohol to separate a young woman from her smallclothes when more sober machinations have failed, but it still serves to illustrate the elements of his future plotting. It was an opportunistic scheme born of chaos and specifically the chaos of two feuding factions that occupied the attention of the responsible authority figure, allowing his charges to misbehave right under his nose. Cat was already betrothed to Brandon Stark, and our young Petyr sought to appeal to vice in order to overcome the Tully motto and three pillars of Westerosi loyalty, Family, Duty, Honor, to make Cat his. Petyr “Life is not a Song” Baelish danced with Cat six times because Lord Bracken had brought his singer to Riverrun. We can see both his disillusionment with song given his failure with Cat and his view of song as a tool, which he’ll later employ with Olenna while initially plotting the Purple Wedding. Perhaps most telling is the fact that it was Lysa that seduced him rather than Petyr seducing Cat, which may well be a clue regarding his ultimate demise.

In the aftermath of his failure to seduce Cat, he eventually appeals to martial skill to try and make Cat his by dueling with Brandon. The duel is a pathetic failure, and seems to have left him with both a personal disdain for martial skill as well as a general disdain for the pillars of Westerosi loyalty that allow one to command others with martial skill. His desire for revenge against Brandon is carried out by Aerys in a reinforcement of the lesson of two factions in conflict providing opportunity. Littlefinger’s life is saved by Cat’s notions of Family, Brandon’s notions of Honor, and his general appearance of being harmless as he was only a boy—all lessons Petyr Baelish takes to heart and seeks to exploit going forward.

The duel also indirectly offered him insight into the politics and posturing of the great lords and their families. Littlefinger was expelled from Riverrun for having gotten Lysa pregnant, but both Hoster Tully and Jon Arryn were content to cover it up and let outsiders believe the duel was the cause. Even the greatest of lords would put aside honor and marry a soiled bride for the practicalities of a fertile wife to produce an heir and the exigencies of war. Honor and duty become more malleable under pressure. Petyr seems to have come to view this keeping up appearances as a form of hypocrisy designed to hide that nobles are just as buyable as everyone else. The whole drama did give him an insider’s view into how high lords conceal and cope with scandal, and how such family drama can often leave a House vulnerable through an unhappy slighted sibling.

Littlefinger used the slighted sibling Lysa and that same posturing style of the great lords to weave an illusion of his own. Everyone believes that his success at his Gulltown post brought him to the attention of the Hand of the King. Lysa even repeats that tale to Sansa:

My father said he was too lowborn, but I knew how high he’d rise. Jon gave him the customs for Gulltown to please me, but when he increased the incomes tenfold my lord husband saw how clever he was and gave him other appointments, even brought him to King’s Landing to be master of coin.

Yet in Lysa’s Moon Door confession, we get a more truthful tale:

It was me who got you your first post, who made Jon bring you to court so we could be close to one another. You promised me you would never forget that.

So the financial genius of Petyr Baelish is at least in part an illusion born of his aborted child with Lysa. Jon Arryn took no notice of Littlefinger’s performance in Gulltown to merit a move to King’s Landing. Littlefinger’s success in Gulltown was a cover story, just like his exile over the duel for Cat, to rationalize a change in post designed to appease Jon Arryn’s young unhappy wife. Petyr’s financial successes also seem to be far more the result of corruption than genius. The corruption was not perfectly hidden either, as Stannis seemed well aware of it.

Janos was hardly the first gold cloak ever to take a bribe, I grant you, but he may have been the first commander to fatten his purse by selling places and promotions. By the end he must have had half the officers in the City Watch paying him part of their wages. Isn’t that so, Janos?”

Littlefinger had a nose for gold, and I’m certain he arranged matters so the crown profited as much from your corruption as you did yourself.

We get more insight into the financial manipulations of the crown’s expenses through Jaime:

The crown pays wages for twenty turnkeys, my lord, a full score, but during my time we have never had more than twelve. We are supposed to have six undergaolers as well, two on each level, but there are only the three.

In the dungeons of the Red Keep alone, just under 50% of the wages are fictitious. If the rest of the crown’s expenses are like either the dungeon payroll or Slynt’s wage scam, it is easy to imagine how Baelish conjured his magical money reputation. He’s basically been stealing from the crown through fabricated expenses and his magical revenues are simply from cutting the treasury in on a percentage of his own graft.

Again, we see Petyr utilizing vices, in this case Slynt’s greed, to make someone abandon duty to become Littlefinger’s. Baelish also exploited the conflict between Stannis and Robert to perpetuate his scam. The Baratheon conflict blends in elements of exploiting sibling rivalry and vices on Robert’s part as well, but they are all elements present in Petyr’s first naïve little scheme and its consequences. What is worth noting is that his hands were not clean. Jon Arryn knew and had evidence that he showed Stannis. Littlefinger was likely confident in his ability to whisper in Robert’s ear, the animosity between Stannis and Robert, and the protection Lysa provided him from any potential wrath from Jon Arryn. That would fit with his pattern of arrogance toward Tyrion later. Still, Stannis lived to tell the tale to a room full of people at the Wall, so Jon and Sam know and that information could easily be passed to Tycho and then on to the Iron Bank in Braavos or to anyone at the Citadel by Sam. These may not be dire threats or imminent ones at this stage, but they are definitely not the signs of someone with perfectly clean hands. This pattern will continue throughout Littlefinger’s story.

Aside from the wage fraud, Baelish also seems to be engaged in large scale embezzlement and price-fixing schemes. The scope of these activities is enormous, and does far more to explain where he gets the money to buy off the Vale lords than his creating false expenses for the crown. Through Tyrion, we get an idea of the scale of these financial manipulations.

(…) today the crown’s revenues were ten times what they had been under his beleaguered predecessor… though the crown’s debts had grown vast as well. A master juggler, was Petyr Baelish.

Ten times revenues is simply an astounding figure. There is no information about massive tax increases under Robert Baratheon’s reign. Kevan Lannister as Regent is so concerned about the nobility’s attitudes towards increased taxes that he finds it preferable to pay off the Iron Bank with Lannister gold rather than increase taxes:

Unless a new source of coin could be found, or the Iron Bank persuaded to relent, he would have no choice but to pay the crown’s debts with Lannister gold. He dare not resort to new taxes, not with the Seven Kingdoms crawling with rebellion. Half the lords in the realm could not tell taxation from tyranny, and would bolt to the nearest usurper in a heartbeat if it would save them a clipped copper.

There is no way Petyr would be thought of as “everyone’s friend” had he raised taxes, even if it were Arryn or Robert’s doing. Taxes are also a rather mundane means of increasing revenue, and hardly the type of solution to earn someone the reputation of a miraculous gold dragon breeder.

There is also the question of exactly where that money went if in fact it ever existed outside of an illusionary appearance on Littlefinger’s ledgers. Robert built no Harrenhal, he had no grand redesign of King’s Landing to replace dragon statues with stags, no massive new network of roads to connect his kingdom, or any grand project to drain the treasury. The single war in Robert’s reign was the Greyjoy Rebellion. It was brief in time, limited in scope of damages, and at least partially offset in cost by the spoils of war. Most of the expenses, such as the Stark and Lannister soldiers or the rebuilding of Lannisport and the Shield Islands, would have been born by the Lord Paramount and not the Crown. Stannis was the Master of Ships and was in charge of the main naval conflict, so that seems to be the primary wartime expense falling to the Crown. The timeline also places the Rebellion at the beginning of the nine year Summer, which are the times of plenty for the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and not an economically contracting Winter like the current story. Robert Baratheon’s defining financial vice was grand tournaments. While we aren’t provided with enough information to piece together the Iron Throne’s operating budget, we are provided with the cost of Robert’s tourney to honor his new Hand and the size of the crown’s debt:

We owe Lord Tywin some three million dragons at present, what matter another hundred thousand?”
Ned was stunned. “Are you claiming that the Crown is three million gold pieces in debt?”
“The Crown is more than six million gold pieces in debt, Lord Stark. The Lannisters are the biggest part of it, but we have also borrowed from Lord Tyrell, the Iron Bank of Braavos, and several Tyroshi trading cartels. Of late I’ve had to turn to the Faith. The High Septon haggles worse than a Dornish fishmonger.

The math simply does not add up. Six million in debt would cover four tourneys as grand as the Hand’s Tourney each year for Robert’s entire fifteen year reign. The vast majority of the Hand’s Tourney expense is the prize money totaling 90,000 gold dragons. The “prodigious feast… cooks, carpenters, serving girls, singers, jugglers, fools,” and other expenses are only 10,000 gold dragons. Without the prize money, Robert could have hosted a tourney like the Hand’s every fortnight for his entire fifteen year reign and still not accumulated six million in debt. That is without even considering our gold dragon rubbing prestidigitator’s supposed tenfold revenue increase. The admittedly irresponsible Robert Baratheon would first have to spend nine times more than Aerys’s annual budget before needing to borrow anything if Littlefinger’s financial gains were genuine. Since they seem to be a work of fiction, one must read between the lines to find the real story.

When Tyrion takes over as Master of Coin and begins combing through Littlefinger’s ledgers, he describes them as a labyrinth. When he tries to discover how Baelish created money, the investments smell worse than week-old fish. Tyrion is a gold-obsessed Lannister whose training, intellect and bookish nature make him better suited to navigate ledgers and accounts than almost anyone in Westeros. If the ledgers are a migraine-inducing maze and the ventures are more rotten than Hamlet’s Denmark, the answer is simple. Littlefinger was not breeding dragons but embezzling them, and his ledgers are merely a tale left for his successor to chase.

While Tyrion is still a true believer in the financial genius of Petyr Baelish, he gives our first details of what Littlefinger did as Master of Coin. It seems the true story of Littlefinger is one of a merchant and market manipulator:

He paid the king’s debts in promises, and put the king’s gold to work. He bought wagons, shops, ships, houses. He bought grain when it was plentiful and sold bread when it was scarce. He bought wool from the north and linen from the south and lace from Lys, stored it, moved it, dyed it, sold it. The golden dragons bred and multiplied, and Littlefinger lent them out and brought them home with hatchlings.

Littlefinger basically bought the prerequisite assets to start monopolizing trade and is using the crown’s capital to do it. Shops to buy the goods at port, ports he largely controlled through his subordinates as Master of Coin, the same shops to sell those goods to the public, ships and wagons to transport those goods to other markets, and houses to store those goods to help control the available supply. The fact that he’s buying from the north, south and Essos tells us how expansive his operation has grown. We also see he’s engaged in manufacturing raw goods into finished products to the extent that it existed in this pseudo-Middle Ages. There are some legitimately profitable endeavors taking place, but those endeavors are also necessary to extend control to as much of the market as possible.

Tyrion also notes how many of Littlefinger’s own people he has positioned:

And in the process, he moved his own men into place. The Keepers of the Keys were his, all four. The King’s Counter and the King’s Scales were men he’d named. The officers in charge of all three mints. Harbormasters, tax farmers, customs sergeants, wool factors, toll collectors, pursers, wine factors; nine of every ten belonged to Littlefinger. They were men of middling birth, by and large; merchants’ sons, lesser lordlings, sometimes even foreigners, but judging from their results, far more able than their highborn predecessors.

We can assume that these men share the salary arrangements we saw with Slynt. They each likely pay a percentage of their wages to their superiors, with some of that money reaching Littlefinger. Since these men are directly involved in financial transactions, they probably more than make up for what they lose in salary from bribes and a cut of Littlefinger’s corrupt endeavors that they’re enforcing or enabling. Also, even with the salary tribute, these positions are probably better than they could have hoped for given their lower birth stations. Petyr Baelish has basically set up his own financial feudal system amongst the sheep right under the shepherd’s nose.

This network was also ideally suited to feed him information for price-fixing. The taxation rate in Westeros isn’t sufficient to control an entire economy, but nine times the annual royal budget is enough to buy up certain goods when they were in short supply and high demand. Based on the taxes on wool, wine and other products as well as reports about which goods were being imported and exported by harbormasters, Littlefinger would have an excellent picture of the supply and demand for goods throughout Westeros. Such information can be a treasure as Sam noted to Jon:

An inventory,” Sam said, “or perhaps a bill of sale.”
“Who cares how much pickled cod they ate six hundred years ago?” Jon wondered.
“I would.” Sam carefully replaced the scroll in the bin from which Jon had plucked it. “You can learn so much from ledgers like that, truly you can.

The Antler Men plot helps illustrate this and shows that Baelish brought merchants into his fold as well. When Varys first shows Tyrion the list of traitors, he notes:

I know some of these names. These are rich men. Traders, merchants, craftsmen.

After Tyrion takes over as Master of Coin and is going through Littlefinger’s ledgers, he realizes that many of them seem to have taken loans from the crown:

I wouldn’t have been so quick to let Joffrey fling the Antler Men over the walls if I’d known how many of the bloody bastards had taken loans from the crown.

These loans were, at least in part, the capital provided to Littlefinger’s merchants to buy up a sufficient quantity of the supply to influence and then exploit the market price. So, when we reach the TWOW gift chapter and see Littlefinger’s plan to hoard grain and sell at desperation prices, this isn’t anything new for him at all. He’s simply continuing a practice he’s been engaged in for over a decade, because he believes that practice to be responsible for his “success.” Of course, like the rest of his actions as Lord Protector, the difference is that he’ll be doing it in the open and will have to bear the consequences of being the public decision-maker that were never a factor while he operated from the shadows.

The Antler Men also provide another example of Petyr’s failure to keep his hands clean. It seems rather unlikely that rich men being showed favor by the current Master of Coin would plot against the crown. Other merchants competing with those being shown favor might have cause to seek a regime change, but not those with preferential treatment under the current rulers. Tyrion’s initial bewildered reaction to the news seems closer to the truth. While there may well have been a plot by some to open the gates for Stannis, it would seem that Varys added the names of Littlefinger’s merchants to the list. So Varys is covering Littlefinger’s trail while also diminishing his assets and influence, but intentionally leaving Littlefinger in play by preventing Tyrion from pursuing the trail evidence in the future. Despite the earlier setback of Ned’s beheading, Varys still acts as if Littlefinger were his pawn and not a competing player.

We get some further evidence for Petyr’s fixation on markets while he’s laughing at Joffrey losing his crossbow war with the hares:

The king is fighting hares with a crossbow,” he said. “The hares are winning. Come see.”

Littlefinger turned away. “Boy, are you fond of potted hare?” he asked Podrick Payne.
Pod stared at the visitor’s boots, lovely things of red-dyed leather ornamented with black scrollwork. “To eat, my lord?”
“Invest in pots,” Littlefinger advised. “Hares will soon overrun the castle. We’ll be eating hare thrice a day.

This quip is rather revealing for Littlefinger’s underlying thought process. He isn’t simply thinking of a starving city and seeing a waste of potential food in Joffrey’s bad aim. He’s thinking past the food to ancillary goods people will need to cook it and how he can profit from that need as he’s been doing for his whole tenure as Master of Coin. He’s been invited to a meeting with the Hand of the King, the same Hand that has recently made a chess move to deprive him of an asset in the Gold Cloaks. Littlefinger’s thoughts would be focused on the game and his seemingly offhand remark is telling. He’s looking to Joffrey, the king, and how to profit from his folly. His confident air and bold taunting of Tyrion with the infamous dagger show his faith in his own ability to play Joffrey as a trump card against Tyrion as he had previously played Robert against Stannis over the Slynt incident. Petyr’s beliefs that sibling rivalry can be exploited to overcome the loyalty bonds of family are on full display, as are his views that the power he wields through vice and money is greater than being a highborn son of a great lord even when wielding a lofty title like Hand of the King.

Littlefinger seems to be proven correct in the short term as Tyrion thinks:

If ever truly a man had armored himself in gold, it was Petyr Baelish

But do I dare touch him? Tyrion wondered. Even if he is a traitor?
He was not at all certain he could, least of all now, while the war raged.

While it is true that Petyr’s earlier lessons about chaos, feuding factions and the exigencies of war are all playing out successfully here, the key to their success for Littlefinger is embodied in another of Tyrion’s observations:

Littlefinger was no threat to anyone. A clever, smiling, genial man, everyone’s friend, always able to find whatever gold the king or his Hand required, and yet of such undistinguished birth, one step up from a hedge knight, he was not a man to fear. He had no banners to call, no army of retainers, no great stronghold, no holdings to speak of, no prospects of a great marriage.

With the exception of acquiring an army in fact instead of in name only, Petyr Baelish will put himself on other people’s radar for all of the reasons Tyrion lists here. He’ll have a powerful marriage to Lysa, holdings and strongholds in Harrenhal and the Eyrie as Lord Protector, and at least in theory the banners of the Vale and Riverlands to call.

Baelish’s view of the buyable nature of lords is on full display again in the Small Council meeting following Renly’s death, where he explicitly spells it out. When asked what reasons they might offer Highgarden, Littlefinger responds:

Gold reasons,” Littlefinger suggested at once.
“Have you been to our markets of late, Lord Varys?” asked Littlefinger. “You’d find it easier to buy a lord than a chicken, I daresay. Of course, lords cluck prouder than chickens, and take it ill if you offer them coin like a tradesman, but they are seldom adverse to taking gifts… honors, lands, castles…

Petyr Baelish makes no distinctions between gold and “gifts.” Nobles may react poorly when offered gold like a tradesman, but to Littlefinger despite the veneer they’re being bought and sold all the same. We also see his focus on markets where he hints that chickens may well be more valuable than lords. While the foundation for the Purple Wedding is laid here, Petyr deservedly comes across as a very astute player, but within his mockery of the lords he’ll play so well are also the seeds of his likely undoing.

Petyr’s ability to make Robert’s men his helps to reinforce his disdain for the Family, Duty, Honor pillars of Westerosi loyalty, but he’s failing to account for his formative lesson in keeping up appearances. These men are Petyr’s in fact so long as they can remain Robert’s or Joffrey’s in name. Overtly commanding loyalty as the man in charge is a very different dynamic from covertly corrupting loyalties from the shadows. The limits of what gold can buy is a hard lesson Tyrion learns repeatedly throughout his entire arc, and thematically gold’s position as one of the three pillars of power in the Varys riddle makes it a dubious basket to store all of one’s golden eggs. Unlike Tyrion, Petyr has shown no evolution in his understanding of the limits of gold even after he has emerged from the shadows into the spotlight as Lord Protector of the Vale. The “evil genius” of the mockingbird seems destined for the same fate as the “super genius” of the coyote—a great fall.

That fall will almost certainly involve some manner of reaping the harvest Littlefinger has sown, but the specifics remain elusive. From the analysis of the dynamic of his past plotting, we can begin to speculate on what his current schemes and agenda for the future might be. To date, the one unchanging facet of Littlefinger’s plotting and chameleon loyalties is his fixation with Sansa. It is Sansa who is the key to piecing together Petyr Baelish’s agenda, and Sansa who offers us the best clues and insights into the impending demise of the mockingbird.

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What Shireen was to Stannis, Dorne was to Benioff and Weiss

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A review of “Mother’s Mercy,” the tenth episode of the fifth season of “Game of Thrones”

by Miodrag Zarković

GoT-S5E10-CerseiNot that David Benioff and Dan Weiss necessarily realize it, but the decision to include Dorne in Season 5 of “Game of Thrones” was possibly their luckiest one ever. Essentially, the presence of the Dornish subplot presented their apologists with a precious opportunity to appear “objective” when they deal with long overdue criticism. For example: “I don’t think it was illogical of Sansa to agree to marry Ramsay, and I don’t share the notion that Stannis would never burn his daughter like that in the books, and the stabbing of Jon Snow was as powerful as in the novel, if not more so—but, hey, if you think I’m just too big a fanboy to ever acknowledge any flaw of the show, let me tell you, the Dorne material was really shameful this season, it was a disaster, and I can’t even express how disappointed I am in that specific part of the season; so, I’m objective, am I not?”

(In case you’re wondering, this was not a direct quote from any of the reviews, but if it actually resembles some of the “arguments” out there. Well, it was bound to happen.)

So, this review will address literally everything, except Dorne. We’ll go through all the other parts of “Mother’s Mercy,” the last GOT episode of the year, but the southernmost kingdom of Westeros will be left alone this time. It suffered too much already, as Benioff and Weiss’ version of a sacrifice to the Gods of TV Criticism.

Dorne is discussed enough elsewhere anyway. No need to open those wounds just to join the choir. Let show apologists handle Dorne.

And, of course, right at the start, we’re going to break that promise. Because, this is a “Game of Thrones” review, after all. People need to be shocked. And is there a better way to shock people than to manipulate them into thinking something, just so you can do exactly the opposite the first chance you get?

So, Dorne, here we come. Prepare your good wives. And that other group. Good daughters, of course. Who else?

Anyway, to say that Benioff and Weiss hate Stannis would be a huge understatement. By now, it’s evident they abhor the Baratheons as a concept. Not even the long-dead members of that royal family can rest in peace. See, what Myrcella’s “I’m glad you’re my father” little speech to Jaime actually indicates is that she’s euphoric not to be Robert’s daughter. Not just happy but truly overjoyed. Don’t let her relatively calm demeanor in that scene trick you: essentially, she doesn’t mind she’s been lied to all her life, or that she’s a product of incest. Or that neither she nor her brother have any claim to the throne their family occupies at the moment, which theoretically might put their lives in danger. Looks like not being Robert Baratheon’s daughter outweighs all the consequences that stem from the fact.

Also, it makes Robert even stupider in hindsight, because, besides him and possibly the High Septon, is there anyone in Westeros who didn’t figure out Jaime and Cersei’s dirty secret?

(Well, there actually was one more person: Tywin Lannister. But we’ll come back to him in the review of the entire season.)

At least, that’s how the entire angle about the twincest, this scene included, is written in the show. In Benioff and Weiss’ universe, it really isn’t a big deal. Only those backward Baratheons overblow the importance of Jaime and Cersei’s affair, but everybody else is more or less okay with it.

Like incest, kinship is also not a concern. Why would Trystane Martell’s cousins trouble their conscience with him at all? Why would his aunt Ellaria give a flying kiss about his wellbeing? Caring is for pussies! Though not for bad ones, apparently.

tyeneAnd that’s what the perception of family in GOT boils down to. It’s a vague connection between people with common ancestry, the connection that doesn’t actually oblige anyone to follow some strict rules of conduct and behavior. God forbid. Because the idea of family doesn’t translate too well onscreen, right? “The Godfather,” anyone? “The Sopranos”? Do we really need another epic failure of that kind?

Alright, kidding about Dorne is the easiest thing ever, but who are we kidding? Was the rest of the season substantially better than that “you need a bad pussy” brilliance?

Of course, it wasn’t. How can TV Sansa’s “If I’m going to die, let it happen while there’s still some of me left” line be taken more seriously than Tyene’s mindless vulgarity? Who talks like that? What does it even mean? “While there’s still some of me left”. . . Did an adult person really think such a line would add some gravity to TV Sansa’s supposedly tragic arc? You know, in order to be tragic, an arc has to exist in the first place. And if it lacks any basic logic whatsoever, it can never exist. And if that’s the case, no line, no matter how overloaded with words desperately covering for the lack of depth, can save it. Did an adult person honestly think such a line would help the audience forget the stupidity of the path that led Sansa to the current situation?

Is that kind of audience theoretically possible?

Looks like it’s not only possible, but very real, because the reports say that “Mother’s Mercy” was the most watched GOT episode ever. So, if numbers are anything to judge by, TV Shireen didn’t burn for nothing a week earlier. Her death at least attracted strong ratings, with people presumably expecting to see how the sacrifice was going to pay out for TV Stannis.

Was the audience satisfied with the result? Much more than Stannis himself, definitely. He was doomed, because at last he faced an opponent he couldn’t overcome with magic: logic.

Benioff and Weiss finally decided, and in the most awkward moment, to treat Stannis’ story logically, which meant that half of his forces deserted the lunatic who burns his own daughter for no reason. It wasn’t realistic, because the desertion happened with a ridiculous secrecy, but at least it was logical. And that’s precisely why the outcome was even more absurd.

In a way, that is exactly what Benioff and Weiss did with Sansa this season, too. Both her and Stannis’ arcs were destined by highly unreasonable, unexplainable, unacceptable choices they made: she agreed to marry into the family that betrayed and murdered her family, and he agreed to burn his only child as a sacrifice to a deity. And once they made their respective decisions, both Stannis and Sansa couldn’t help but suffer dearly, because from then on their arcs developed somewhat more logically: his campaign ended in a devastating defeat, and she was exposed to constant physical torture and humiliation by her husband.

And that’s the main problem with their arcs. Stannis’ TV fate proves why no person with any sanity left would even think about doing what he did to Shireen under those circumstances. Sansa’s TV ordeal proves why no person with any sanity left would ever agree to marry into a family of known traitors and usurpers. Ultimately, Sansa and Stannis prove why no writer with any talent should ever so much as consider writing something so stupid as their respective decisions this season.

There are some who disagree, naturally. On his “The Nerdstream Era” blog, Stefan Sasse took issue with my review of the infamous “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” episode. Specifically, my notion that Ramsay not raping Sansa would be an illogical outcome once they’re married, Stefan found to be an example of logical fallacy, and he “took up the challenge” of providing a satisfying alternative that could make Sansa’s marriage to Ramsay work. He then describes what he calls several propositions, which, honestly, to me look like they all come to essentially the same thing: Roose forbids Ramsay to molest Sansa, and Ramsay has no choice but to obey.

But of course, just because an alternative can be described, it doesn’t mean it’s logical in any way. The very demand on Roose’s part would ring untrue, not the least because in the show there are no Northern lords, the reaction of which might trouble the Boltons. And besides, what PR problems would Roose worry about, when someone as informed as Littlefinger wasn’t able to find out anything about Ramsay? But even that aside, a villain who’s so obedient to his father isn’t exactly a villain anymore. Just compare Stefan’s proposal with the situation from the book, where Ramsay threatens Reek just because Roose is about to briefly take him away. And, no, Ramsay just can’t be compared to Joffrey, nor to the rest of Margaery’s husbands, which is something any reader—or show watcher—would have to agree.

But the biggest fallacy of Stefan’s argument is the very idea that two wrongs make something right. Like, if Sansa’s ridiculous acceptance to marry Ramsay is followed by the equally ridiculous PR concerns and Ramsay’s obedience, everything’s going to be fine. In other words, let’s put Sansa into some nonsensical arc, but we mustn’t infuriate Sansa’s fans so we’ll perform some additional acrobatics to elude the most logical outcome of the said nonsensical arc.

Well, if you don’t want to infuriate Sansa’s fans, how about not putting Sansa in an arc without any sense whatsoever? Keeping her away from Ramsay would be a good start, most probably, because that way she wouldn’t have to make a decision no reasonable being ever would.

And anyway, what’s this big reward Sansa was taken to Winterfell this season for? What was the big payoff? A jump from the walls? Is that how she avenges her family? Is that how she learns not to be a bystander any more? Is that how she won’t be running away all her life? Also, if TV Sansa is to eventually end in the same place as book Sansa (which is Benioff and Weiss’ self-announced intention for all the major characters at least), now she has to leave Jeyne Poole’s role and go back to Sansa’s book path—which clearly means her arc this season was nothing but a filler.

sansa theonHow contagious was the entire idea of TV Sansa in Winterfell is also evidenced by the utter destruction of Theon’s book arc. What Theon goes through in “A Dance with Dragons” is widely and righteously considered one of the highlights of the entire saga and one of the strongest ASOIAF claims for a place in a literary Pantheon. Atmospheric, suspenseful, highly disturbing and at the same time strangely poetic, armored with both political intrigue and supernatural elements, and commanded by perhaps the hardest personal struggle any character in the series had to overcome, those chapters are not only memorable as a reading experience but also very cinematic for a screen adaptation. Something would inevitably be lost in the transition, like Reek’s famous rhymes, but there’s enough other meat there to make a brilliant TV season’s arc without any alteration. What we witnessed in the past ten weeks, however, is not even a pale shadow of that arc. Partly because Benioff and Weiss were portraying Theon’s agony for two previous seasons (also in a very unsatisfying manner), and partly because this season Theon’s story had to share screen-time with that of Sansa (and, by extension, Littlefinger), they were all shorthanded in the end.

The only thing the Winterfell subplot this season “lacked” in comparison to the infamous Dornish one were some poorly choreographed fight scenes. And also, unlike Dorne, Winterfell was occupied by characters that weren’t just introduced at the beginning of the season. But if we put these differences aside, the story in and around the ancient seat of the Starks was really not a bit better than the Sand Snakes’ shenanigans. That is the “power” of TV Littlefinger’s plan for TV Sansa!

Meanwhile, TV Stannis was almost bearable in the first half of the season, which, given Benioff and Weiss’ well documented mistreatment of the character in the past, was a rather surprising turn of events. But, everything came to “order” in the last two episodes. As said, the logical fallout from Shireen’s sacrifice only made matters worse: of course that half the army (at the very least) is going to desert a monstrous zealot who burns his own daughter, and that is precisely why not even a religious zealot would do something so inhuman, not even if he’s totally emotionless toward his daughter, let alone if he actually does have feelings for her, as the show itself tried to establish early in the season. Even if TV Stannis is someone who’d choose ambition over familial love (and we have no reason to doubt such a description, since it’s Benioff himself who delivered it in the “Inside the episode” video), only an imbecile would confuse the Episode 9 situation with such a choice, just like Episode 10 ultimately proved. Having all that in mind, Stannis’ subplot this season really came close to the infamous Dorne, at least at the very end, which managed to be comically bad even without “bad pussies” in the offering.

GoT-S5E10-StannisSo, Stannis and Sansa’s arcs this season make a pattern of incompetence of a sort. But it goes even beyond that. As an unlikely couple of tragic victims of this “adaptation,” Stannis and Sansa present the strongest case against everything “Game of Thrones” managed to destroy from its source material. These two characters are seldom analyzed in sync, but maybe they should’ve been, because together they reveal all the richness of Martin’s unique vision and the astonishing range of his storytelling genius. Between the two of them, you have everything there is to love about “A Song of Ice and Fire,” with Sansa’s being possibly the most intimate POV in the saga, and Stannis probably the least intimate but most epic perspective of the series (and he’s not even a POV character), and last but not least, the situation is changing with both of them, in that Sansa is more and more engaged in the dynastic war (of which she was part of against her will at first, but by now she seems to fully accept her involvement in), while Stannis’ choices are becoming more and more personal (if for nothing else, then because Davos, his father figure and conscience, is not with him at the moment to help him with decisions).

It is quite an “accomplishment” to mishandle both of them. It takes some kind of effort. My impression is that Benioff and Weiss hate Stannis, while they are completely disinterested in Sansa. But it could just as easily be the other way around: they hate Sansa, and it’s Stannis who interests them in no way. Or any combination in-between, really. But what is absolutely certain is that Benioff and Weiss understand and/or love neither Stannis nor Sansa.

But, is there anything they do love and understand about ASOIAF? It doesn’t appear so. They’re possibly in love with their twisted take on some of the characters, like Tyrion or Cersei or Margaery or Olenna, but not even their TV fates offer some extraordinary rewards to dedicated viewers. Like, in the season finale Tyrion was just handed a city to rule! How can that be even remotely engaging or intriguing for any true ASOIAF admirer? Book Tyrion fights for both his survival and basic dignity in almost every scene in ADWD, while his TV namesake receives Meereen on a plate only days after he reached the damn city! He even gets Varys once again. It is not a bit less ridiculous than Dorne, truth be told. And, by the way, Meereen also suffered from some abysmal choreography this season on several occasions, which is, again, completely comparable to the Sand Snakes and their action scenes.

Add to that Daenerys, and her character that was all over the place this season, and especially that last scene when Dothraki riders circle around her for some reason, and I honestly fail to see why was Meereen better than Dorne this season.

daenerys-et-son-fils-drogonWas Brienne’s arc better than Dorne? Hardly. She was also cursed with nonsensical dialogue, involved in a ridiculous fight, and left aimlessly to wander between two other people’s plots: Sansa’s and Stannis’. Needless to say, none of her scenes resembled anything from her book chapters, which even if often underappreciated by some readers provide a pretty solid and eventful arc that could’ve made a strong TV season. Again, the viewers knew Brienne from before, and she wasn’t handling poisons but candles, but in reality, that’s all that separated her “arc” from that Dornish rubbish this season.

The least bad storylines were those in King’s Landing and Braavos, but that’s not to say they didn’t suffer from grave problems. Speaking of Arya, her final scene, in which she goes blind even though she didn’t consume any potion that might be responsible for the condition, but not before No One Who Looked Very Much Like Jaqen died for some reason, only to be instantly reborn in another same-looking body, was one more exercise in forced stupidity, created out of a wish to change the source material at any cost.

Meanwhile, in Westeros’ capital, the things ended much better than they started, because of the powerful Walk of Shame scene, that was—surprise, surprise—the most faithful one to the source material. In the name of that, let’s leave the rest of it to the review of the season as a whole.

And finally, the Wall. Where it all started. And where, as media reports suggest, TV Jon’s life actually ended. His arc was not ruined beyond recognition, like Sansa’s or Stannis’ or Jaime’s or Brienne’s (or Sam’s, for that matter). But it was one missed opportunity after another. Brilliant points from his ADWD storyline were either completely cut (his dealings with Bowen Marsh and other direct subordinates, for example, and also his gradual involvement in the Northern politics), or thoroughly underwhelming (the Wildings entering the realm), in order to give space to the show invention of the Battle at Hardhome, that ultimately ruined the climactic moment of the entire season: the stabbing of Jon. His supposed death in the show was so unearned, not only because his intention to confront Ramsay was omitted but also because the Hardhome experience was rendered meaningless in the show universe. Like, if the dramatic battle against the merciless enemy in full force, wasn’t a reason enough for the mutineers to at least delay their move against the Lord Commander, then it’s really not a surprise his direwolf is now called Olly, same as that annoying kid who managed to undo both Ygritte and Jon.

(Come to think of it, Ramsay does have his match finally. If anyone can stop him, it’s Olly. Better not disappoint this youngster, Mr. Bolton.)

Game of Thrones, Series 5,Episode 10,Mother's Mercy,Sky Atlantic, O'Connor, Brenock;Harington, Kit as Olly Hamlet;Jon SnowSo, how do TV Westeros and Essos look like at the end of Season 5? It’s a place where wars are decided by 20 good men. Where highborn girls willingly marry into families that destroyed their lives. Where children actually prefer to be products of incest. And where an entire city can be delivered to a complete stranger with a dark and mysterious past.

How did we exactly get to such a silly place? We’ll talk about that in three days, on Friday, when the review of the entire season, in a refreshing form proposed by the management of the site, will be posted here.

Is there anything we, as a community of ASOIAF admirers disappointed in this “adaptation” that seems back on its feet once again, can do to remedy the situation? You know, there actually might be something. More on that on Friday.

How many children did Scarlett O’Hara burn?

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A review of “The Dance of Dragons,” the ninth episode of the fifth season of “Game of Thrones”

by Miodrag Zarković

In case there was anyone left unconvinced that “Game of Thrones” is the most unfaithful adaptation ever, the penultimate episode of the fifth season definitely cleared any doubts. After realizing there are no more human characters or animals or beasts they haven’t already changed beyond recognition, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, the two showrunners, finally turned to the deities in said episode. So now we have book R’hllor, that exists in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series by George R. R. Martin, and TV R’hllor, that operates in a somewhat different manner.

And it’s only fair. What makes the gods so special? Why should they be spared from Benioff and Weiss’ famous creativity?

On first impression, the new R’hllor isn’t too unlike TV Meryn Trant, in that they share this penchant for young girls. And both got what they wanted in this episode, though not before some trouble, of course, because this is “Game of Thrones” after all: nothing is easy in this world, not even for seasoned knights and supernatural forces.

Poor Meryn had to sit through what was arguably the most shocking sequence Benioff and Weiss treated their audience to: a multitude of prostitutes parading onscreen without a single sight of nudity. TV R’hllor, on the other hand, was forced to wait until TV Ramsay, channeling Chuck Norris, set the supplies of TV Stannis Baratheon’s army ablaze, and only then his demand could ultimately be met with.

(From the scene of the Boltons’ attack on Stannis camp, keep in mind that poor horse on fire. It’ll be helpful later on.)

The demand was to sacrifice Shireen Baratheon, Stannis’ only child, by burning her alive. And yes, it arguably means that the girl acquired by Meryn Trant was actually the luckier one. O tempora, o mores!

It also means that “Game of Thrones” is like a car without an engine, or a restaurant with no food, or a bank with no money, or practically any other entity that’s failing to fulfill its basic purpose. Yes, the “anyone can be killed” show actually sucks at killing its characters.

That’s hardly news. It’s been like that ever since the pilot episode, which in its very first scene stripped Ser Waymar Royce’s death of any heroism. It was like that this entire season, as evidenced by TV Barristan’s death. But the burning of Shireen was a whole new level. Opposite to many other of Benioff and Weiss’ interventions, this one wasn’t exactly illogical (not because it’s logical but because there’s no criteria the act can be measured against in regards to logic), as much as it was the very definition of unearned moment. Even though the showrunners packed it with Shireen’s screams and the soldiers’ horrified looks and Selyse’s late tears, the scene just couldn’t operate beyond the pure spectacle aspect. If you’re generally disturbed by the image of a child burned at the stake, or, even more, by her agonizing cries for help, chances are the sacrifice of Shireen was not an emotionless viewing. But it hardly reached something deeper.

It simply couldn’t, because a) none of the characters involved, almighty R’hllor included, was ever properly established or developed, and b) the context it shapes is, typically for Benioff and Weiss, contradicting any realistic take on the setting.

TV Stannis is exactly what Benioff and Weiss want him to be: a fanatic devoid of any humanity, a driven sociopath, nature’s cruel joke that never made anyone laugh. How can such an individual ever inspire any loyalty or devotion, is among the numerous questions Benioff and Weiss wouldn’t know how to even begin answering. TV Selyse is someone who keeps dead fetuses in jars; whoever thought that can lead to a relatable character, probably watched too many movies with dead fetuses in jars. TV Shireen was a kid borrowed from some fairy tale, too perfect for her own storytelling good: characters of that type are written either by authors at odds with realism, or as an exercise in some cheap manipulation aimed at breaking the hearts of the audience at some point; or, as it’s sadly often the case with GOT, both. TV Melisandre is out of character every time she appears dressed, and, speaking of her dress, R’hllor isn’t The Red God anymore, if the fifth season is anything to judge by. If those are the characters that occupy a particular storyline, well, don’t expect that anything that happens to them will actually matter. The audience may be instinctively affected by this horrific sight or that one, but that’s where any intellectual and/or emotional connection stops. Honestly, the only remotely relatable element in that scene was those shocked soldiers, hence the point number two. In a world that is entirely built around the institution of family, a character that burns his own daughter just because his supplies and horses were destroyed is perhaps possible, but definitely not useful in a storytelling sense, unless the sacrifice itself isn’t the very climax and practically point of his arc. Since the episode aired, many critics and commenters compared Shireen’s death to the sacrifice of Iphigenia committed by Agamemnon ahead of the Trojan War, but it’s just wrong for a number of reasons. First, Agamemnon doesn’t even have a family name. He is not Agamemnon of the House Whatever. He’s just Agamemnon, because that entire society is built of quite a different fabric from Westeros. Second, in Greek mythology deities really are everywhere and involved in everything. When Agamemnon’s fleet can’t sail because the wind stopped, there is no shadow of a doubt in the mind of any soldier or subject of his that the gods are behind the obstacle—just like they actually are. So, Agamemnon is forced to appease, one way or the other, the deity he insulted.

ASOIAF is a completely different story, set in a fundamentally different culture. One of the most important aspects of the saga is that supernatural forces are coming back to the world. In effect, that means Westeros, at the beginning of ASOIAF, is a place governed by rationality, simply because it didn’t witness any magic for ages. There is faith, of course, because the Westerosi don’t delude themselves into thinking they can control the rain and the snow and the storms and whatnot. They never mistake themselves for gods. They are aware some things will always escape their reasoning, and therefore they do place their faith in the deities of the religion they happen to belong to. But they are a pretty rational society. Primitive compared to modern societies on 21st century Earth, but very rational. The traditions and rules they follow are established by centuries and centuries of human experience, and not because this divine authority or that one issued an order. One could say that even their faith in higher powers is somewhat rational at its core.

That delicate balance between reason and faith is what enables the culture that commands the political and social system in Westeros. And in such a culture, a king who sacrifices his daughter just because that’s how he interpreted the order form the deity he worships is a freak, an abomination, a lunatic that nobody would follow anywhere, let alone into war.

And it’s not that the Westerosi never heard of the concept of sacrifice. In fact, in the early stages of Stannis’ arc in the books, we’re told the story of Azor Ahai and his beloved Nissa Nissa, whom he had to kill in order to save the human race. But that’s exactly the point: Nissa Nissa died so the world would be saved, and not for a victory in a dynastic war. With that legend, the author makes us understand what kind of sacrifice is possible in the world he created, which, by extension, renders some other types unacceptable.

And in the books everyone’s aware of that. Whatever feelings Stannis has for his daughter, he’d never even think about sacrificing her for the Iron Throne. Melisandre would never even mention such a suggestion to Stannis, nor does she herself ever entertain the idea, it seems. Even R’hllor looks pretty uninterested in Shireen at this stage, although Stannis at the end of ADWD (and beginning of TWOW) is arguably in a worse situation than his TV namesake—if for nothing else, because that TV blizzard is a joke compared to the one Martin described in the book.

Have to say, I was unpleasantly surprised by a number of people that reacted to TV Shireen’s death with the notion that Stannis in the book would never burn his daughter like that, but Mel totally would. I really can’t say where that interpretation of Melisandre is coming from, but Martin’s famous statement that Mel’s probably the most misunderstood character in ASOIAF only makes more sense now. There undoubtedly is a fanatical and merciless side to Melisandre, but she’s not all evil. Far from it. In the very chapter she’s introduced in, when Maester Cressen approaches her with a poisoned wine, she openly warns him against the deed, signaling him to abandon the attempt on her life. Many readers seem to forget or overlook that detail, but it’s quite a telling one. It doesn’t mean she’s some kind angel, of course not; some of her acts are clearly repulsive and unforgivable; but, just like the vast majority of ASOIAF characters, she’s nuanced and layered. And no, not in any moment so far she even thinks about burning Shireen or indicates that it has to be done.

But David Benioff actually claims Shireen will be sacrificed in the books, too. In “Inside the episode” video, this is what he said:

“When George first told us about this, it was one of those moments where I remember looking at Dan, it was just like, `God, that’s so, it’s so horrible, and so good in a story sense, because it all comes together.`”

At face value, this may look like Benioff’s storytelling talent finally came through. At long last, he produced a line that is subtle, mysterious, intriguing, open to various, though not necessarily illogical, interpretations, and worthy of a serious analysis. And, most importantly, it didn’t happen by chance; no, he obviously intended it that way.

And that’s it. That is really the full extent of Benioff’s talent, because in the very next sentence he managed to embarrass himself and deliver a factually wrong recollection of his own work:

“You know, from the beginning, from the very first time we saw Stannis and Melisandre, they were sacrificing people, they were burning people alive on the beaches of Dragonstone. And it’s really all come to this. There’s been so much talk about king’s blood and the power of king’s blood, and that all leads ultimately, fatally, to Shireen’s sacrifice.”

Beg your pardon, Mr. Benioff, but what the hell are you talking about? What people were they burning alive on the beaches of Dragonstone? Those were statues of the Seven, not people, Mr. Benioff! If you want to leave the impression you’re in command of Martin’s yet-untold story, you shouldn’t be misremembering parts of the story you yourself already told. But let’s get back to the beginning first line: “When George first told us about this . . .” What does this “this” of yours stand for, Mr. Benioff? If you’re trying to say that George told you Stannis will allow Mel to burn Shireen after Ramsay destroyed his army’s supplies, you’re either lying or once again misremembering vital parts of the story. Melisandre and Shireen aren’t even with Stannis on his march to Winterfell in the books. Ramsay doesn’t perform some miraculous commando mission in the books. And George did write those books, all five of them so far. So he theoretically couldn’t have told you about “this”!

What he possibly did tell you, is that Shireen will indeed be sacrificed, maybe even by Stannis himself. But many a reader speculated about that possibility for years and years. I guess you and Mr. Weiss were busy reading online theories about Jon Snow’s mother, so perhaps you didn’t have the time to go through other predictions dedicated readers keep posting, because otherwise you wouldn’t be too surprised when George first told you about “this.”

Yes, Shireen’s sacrifice has for long been hinted at in the novels, and since Martin didn’t rebut your statement, it’s now as good as proven that it’s going to happen in the remaining two installments. But it’s even more certain Martin isn’t going to do it in such a shallow and gratuitous way as you two did.

(Gratuitous! What a word. It was in every GOT-related article these past weeks, but now, when TV Stannis gratuitously burns his daughter, it’s nowhere to be seen, it seems. It’s as if this kind of violence doesn’t particularly disturb mainstream media, because it’s not politically bankable.)

Your scene, Mr. Benioff, lacked the gravity ASOIAF scenes are famous for. It happens a lot in this “adaptation” of yours, because things that fascinate you two apparently confuse you too. For example, you also managed to misunderstand patricide, as evidenced last year when you omitted the most important part of Tyrion’s decision to abandon his escape from prison and go look for some explanations from Tywin. This season, a sacrificial murder of a man’s own child was obviously too much for your comprehension, even though you couldn’t resist putting it in the show.

And yes, you also failed to properly interpret Ramsay, although you evidently adore the guy. And allow me to show you what I mean, by asking you a simple question: When did you discover you’re in love with Ramsay’s shenanigans?

Here’s my guess: only when you read “A Dance with Dragons,” e.g. by the time you already scripted the entire second season of your show. Was it humiliating, Mr. Benioff, to read in awe those Winterfell chapters in that book, while all the time thinking about the huge mistake of cutting Ramsay out of your “adaptation”? Yeah, in the third season you managed to bring Ramsay in (and ever since you waited for the opportunity to add a burning horse, which is a book scene associated with Ramsay material you skipped in Season 2), because by that time you became obsessed with him and his cruelty. But you were still mad at yourselves, and possibly at George, for omitting Roose’s bastard from the second season, which resulted in the mess that was the TV Winterfell storyline that year. Was it then when you finally made George tell you the endgame for ASOIAF, so you could avoid similar missteps in the future?

Was it then when you also found out about Shireen’s ultimate fate? Because neither Shireen nor Selyse appeared in Season 2, which indicates that when you were writing the scripts you probably still didn’t know about that “this” thing you referred to in the latest “Inside the episode” video.

Seeing how fascinated you obviously are with both Ramsay’s sadism and Shireen’s sacrifice, I’m positive you’d have included both in Season 2, had you known back then what Martin had in store for them. Not that Ramsay’s or Shireen’s TV arc would benefit from it. I mean, just look at what you did to the Daznak’s Pit scene, which, in the same “Inside the episode” video, you described like this, Mr. Benioff:

“Even before we put it in paper, I remember reading this scene in the book and saying ‘Holy shit.’ And, actually, I remember e-mailing George right after I read the scene, even before I finished the book, just after reading this scene, and saying: `That’s one of the best scenes in any of your books and I have no idea how we’re gonna do it`.” Well, looks like eventually you got some idea. This is how you “did it” in the end: you made it even more complicated, though in a completely ridiculous way that inevitably removed every quality the scene possessed in the book and replaced it with some silly action the ultimate purpose of which was, yes, to feed Peter Dinklage with what you probably recognize as award material. You even failed to reward your man Jorah with a badass moment: when he hits that Son of the Harpy with a spear, it looks impressive at first, but then one realizes Jorah couldn’t miss actually, because the Sons of the Harpy were everywhere. In whichever direction he sent that spear, he’d kill one of them!

But all of that is small potatoes compared to your biggest, meanest, vilest gesture ever, Mr. Benioff. Let’s get back to “Inside the episode” video and your “When George first told us about this” line.

Asking you what right did you have to spoil the future books that way, would definitely be futile. Earning a right to do something is, clearly, one more concept you see no problem rejecting. I also doubt you ever think about comeuppance, seeing how dismissively you look at the very idea of higher justice. Just like I’m sure the next time you need to cover your unparalleled incompetence, you’re again not going to hesitate to put the responsibility on Martin, and spoil the coming novels in the process. But don’t fool yourself, that’s sort of kinslaying what you do. And you are on ASOIAF ground. And you’re about to lose all your supplies, because scripts for the next season you’ll have to turn in any day now, and “The Winds of Winter” is still not out.

And, after the last episode, I think you two have a very clear idea how strong and mind-corroding is the despair that falls on self-entitled, under-equipped fanatics caught on hostile, unfamiliar territory.

Wronghome

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A review of “Hardhome,” the eight episode of the fifth season of “Game of Thrones”

by Miodrag Zarković

nk(DISCLAIMER: It’d be tempting to blame the ladies who run this site for the fact that the promised second part of “Not a Review” is still not posted. With their track record of torture and abuse of poor, unprotected journalists, who’d have a single reason to doubt it? But the truth is that they are not to blame, it’s all my fault. Job and life got in the way, the piece is still not done, and I’m sorry for that. It will hopefully be finished in a few days and post it here. Meanwhile, back at the Wall…)

Creatively, to a lot of fans and critics alike it made sense to really like “Hardhome,” because they wanted and needed it to be good. Lately, the fifth season of “Game of Thrones” was almost universally received as a letdown, so it was on much-hyped “Hardhome” to save what could be saved. And, by the reaction it was received with—almost universal praise—it looks like the episode performed beyond expectations even.

A pity that it definitely ruined any connection to the source material in the process. There wasn’t much left of it even before the episode, but after “Hardhome” the show is not just a completely separate beast from the books: it’s a completely different universe now.

What this hour (and it was just seconds shy of one full hour, which is very rare for “Game of Thrones”) managed to betray, is possibly the fundamental quality of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series by George R. R. Martin. All the complexity of the novels, the sophisticated political intrigue, the social structures that bite, the layered and vivid characters, all that came from the most important decision an author can bring: to write a story that is not simplistic. And Martin did make that choice in the early `90s, just when he was about to start working on the series.

Without that decision, ASOIAF would’ve been an essentially different narrative. Perhaps it’d be a success even in that case. Simplistic stories can be remarkable, just like complex stories can be utter failures. Nothing is guaranteed, one way or the other. But it wouldn’t even resemble the ASOIAF we know today.

The paramount importance of that decision lies in the simple fact that an author must know what he wants to achieve. Otherwise, it’s all just random. And, once the decision is made, the author has to stick with it. When the process of writing ensues, it’s not just about creativity any more, but also a matter of discipline. Many a Siren will try to lure Odysseus away from the actual Odyssey and into some other arc. It’s on the author alone to resist those challenges and stay true to the initial idea.

As said, Martin made the call. It’s not only evident by the series itself but he also confirmed the choice famously stating, many times and in various occasions, that he wasn’t interested in a rather simple Good vs. Evil narrative. He wanted ASOIAF, although a fantasy epic, to be much more true to the real life than to the genre tropes:

“The battle between Good and Evil is a theme of much of fantasy. But I think the battle between Good and Evil is fought largely within the individual human heart, by the decisions that we make. It’s not like evil dresses up in black clothing and you know, they’re really ugly.”

That’s what the man said. His actual words, from an interview he gave back in 2011 when, after the show’s debut season, mainstream media got a hint that fantasy can be so much more than gathering all the good guys on one side and all the bad guys on the opposite corner and pitching them against each other. Such a revelation led quite a few journalists on a task of finding where did all that complexity come from, and, since every single element of the show that fascinated both the audience and the critics was directly taken from the source material (while, on the other hand, all the annoying stuff, like the infamous “sexposition,” was produced by the showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss), the research couldn’t help but end with George R. R. Martin. He was quite a popular person that summer, and in each interview he gave, he was asked how he had managed to create a world as multifaceted as the one ASOIAF is set in. And every time Martin’s answer was the same. Here’s another example, also from that time:

“Much as I admire Tolkien, and I do admire Tolkien—he’s been a huge influence on me, and his Lord of the Rings is the mountain that leans over every other fantasy written since and shaped all of modern fantasy—there are things about it, the whole concept of the Dark Lord, and good guys battling bad guys, Good versus Evil, while brilliantly handled in Tolkien, in the hands of many Tolkien successors, it has become kind of a cartoon. We don’t need any more Dark Lords, we don’t need any more, ‘Here are the good guys, they’re in white, there are the bad guys, they’re in black. And also, they’re really ugly, the bad guys‘.”

Now, just compare that stance of his to the last 20 minutes of “Hardhome,” and you’ll clearly see why that entire sequence, much hailed as a savior of the season or even the best thing the show has ever done, is so different from the source material “Game of Thrones” is supposedly adapting.

hardhome

What the Hardhome battle is both in substance and on facade, is the one thing Martin didn’t want his saga to be recognized as: good guys (the handful of Black Brothers and thousands of Wildlings) against the bad guys (White Walkers and Wights in seemingly endless quantities). Truth be told, prior to the battle itself there were some tensions between various factions of the “good guys,” but the cataclysmic evil that soon avalanched on them rendered all those tensions, as poorly-built as they were, practically irrelevant. When the battle started, all that mattered was that the attackers, every single one of them, were the menace, while the Black Brothers and the Wildlings, every single one of them, were either fighting the menace or running away from it.

One might say the books are also progressing to the same spot. Ever since the prologue of the first novel, it’s clear that the battle against the Others is what will determine the fate of the whole of mankind. Therefore, it is only logical to expect a grand showdown between Good and Evil in the books, too. Does that make Martin a hypocrite, then?

Not really, because his words aren’t to be taken literally. Avoiding a cliché shouldn’t be the same as avoiding the basic reasons that has been driving the art of storytelling since time immemorial. A story must have a climax. An epic story must have an antagonist. The most reasonable climax of an epic is a battle against the antagonist, and for it to be memorable, the stakes at that point have to be as high as ever. Hence, the battle versus undoubted Evil is a natural conclusion of an epic saga. The journey there, however, is what can make all the difference in the world. The manner, the moment, the atmosphere in which the forces of Good are lined up, can go a long way in renouncing the cliché and staying true to Martin’s intent of avoiding simplicity.

It stands to reason that Martin is doing exactly that: once ASOIAF is completed, the Others will probably be recognized as the prime antagonists, which is how they were built up ever since the beginning, but if the story is completed in style, everything that happened before the climax will only make it more impactful and memorable.

And that’s why discipline is important. The battle of Good versus Evil has to be left only for the climax. It shouldn’t be truncated before that, or else it hurts the narrative logic that drives the entire story. In some other story, created with some other intention, the final battle could be delivered in smaller installments that precede the ultimate one. Here, in ASOIAF, that’s not what the author wanted and he worked very hard to avoid it.

Just recall all the battles Martin wrote in the books so far. There isn’t too many of them. In AGOT, there’s the Battle on the Green Fork, which could definitely be seen as an early showdown versus Evil, because at that stage the Lannisters were as good as antagonists, if not for the most important fact that the entire battle is told through the eyes of the single Lannister who’s by that time already proven not to be an antagonist. Everything Martin did with Tyrion up to that point was meant to portray him as a sympathetic character, which serves, among other things, as a prevention against cliché the author wants to avoid. Two victories of Robb’s army, which was logically recognized by a reader as the forces of Good at the time, therefore it happened off-page, and we’re only told about them later on.

In ACOK, there’s the Battle of the Blackwater, told through three POVs—Davos, Sansa and Tyrion—all with their specific perspectives and neither as an antagonist. A reader is welcome to pick a side, but Martin evidently restrained from doing it and thus once again avoided the dreaded cliché.

In ASOS, there’s the Battle at the Wall, and while Jon Snow is one of the main protagonists, the author went to great lengths to convey both the ambiguous feelings Jon harbors for the enemy and also the perspective of the Wildlings themselves, with whom Jon had spent much time in the recent past.

And that’s it. Three big battles so far in the series, and in each of them the author covered multiple angles in order to rule out the Good vs. Evil context. Of course, it was deliberate and in service of the coming showdown reserved for the climax.

Also, recall that one instance where the early battle against the Others could’ve been written: at the Fist of the First Men, when Jeor Mormont’s ranging expedition is attacked. The battle itself is skipped, which some readers deem a mistake. The mistake, however, would’ve been to depict the battle, for the same reason the depiction of Robb’s victories would have. (And, anyway, opting to deliver the aftermath of the battle through Sam’s first POV chapter was definitely not the easy way out.)

The show abandoned that path for good, with the battle in “Hardhome” that was like the textbook case of a clash in which the sides were already and clearly picked by the authors. As already stated, that is the betrayal of the narrative logic the source material’s driven by.

In another story, a move like that wouldn’t necessarily be bad in theory. But for the story that was meant to be an adaptation of ASOIAF, that was all kinds of wrong. And that’s why, after “Hardhome,” GOT and ASOIAF don’t even belong to the same universe anymore. It’d be like remaking “Apocalypse Now” but with a skirmish between Kurtz and Willard somewhere around the midpoint: no matter how effective the added scene might be, it’d inevitably change the story in its core. Or, like remaking “The Sopranos” having Dr. Melfi engage in an affair with Tony for a little while.

Not that GOT viewers minded the change. The reaction to the episode points to a conclusion that, perhaps for the first time this season, Benioff and Weiss managed to satisfy their audience. Which, in turn, means exactly what it sounds like: the show’s audience is by now completely different to the books’ audience.

It doesn’t mean the book readers don’t or shouldn’t watch the show, or vice versa. But regardless of how much they do overlap, those are still different audiences, in the sense that an ASOIAF reader can also watch “The Walking Dead” and enjoy it even, but for reasons that have nothing to do with his/her interest in ASOIAF. It was pretty clear from the early days of the show, but now it’s just too damn obvious, that ASOIAF and GOT are consummated for vastly different rationales. Sometimes you want just sex; sometimes you want to spend the entire life with the one you love; the former may lead to a decent marriage, and the latter may end in an emotional disaster, but no person with healthily developed sentiments would ever confuse the two.

Analyzing GOT on its own is, therefore, a completely futile assignment at this point. Why would anyone put a strictly sexual relationship under scrutiny? They meet, they have sex, they part ways until the next time. That’s it. Nothing to talk about. You can film the intercourse and later watch it, share the video with friends even, but any reasonable interest ends there.

dany and impWhy talk about Dany and Tyrion’s scenes then? Of course they’re offensively stupid if you think about them, but they’re not there to be thought about. They’re there for people who enjoy simply seeing Dany and Tyrion on screen at the same time. Whatever he or she said, it doesn’t matter. They’re interacting and that’s all that is important.

Why discuss TV Sansa and TV Theon? Of course she behaves in a way that creatively makes sense to the showrunners because that’s how they wanted her to behave; whether her behavior is logically sustainable or not, that’s a completely different issue that, honestly, doesn’t matter at all. Same with Theon, who not so long ago bit his true sister, but now breaks before his foster one: it’s not supposed to make any sense, other than that “creative” one Benioff illustrated so vividly.

TV Ramsay will do whatever the showrunners’ famous creativity wants him to do. He’s going to kill Stannis. Or get himself killed. Or neither. But why bother with it? It’s just a casual relationship. You can get in bed with TV Ramsay, or find another sex buddy in some other story, just don’t think about any of it.

One zombie is stopped by an arrow, the next one eats arrows for breakfast; the Thenn leader hates Jon Snow so much he opts to face the White Walkers on his own, but minutes later the same Thenn leader sacrifices himself for Jon Snow; a group of zombie kids patiently wait for that young wildling mother to make up her mind about fighting them, and only after she realizes she can’t they kill her; and zombies are afraid of sea water for some reason . . . But so what? It is not supposed to make any sense at all. Creatively, Benioff and Weiss are absolutely certain this Hardhome business was a great idea, because they wanted it to happen.

And they’re clearly not alone. They found their sex buddies again. The relationship was in a little crisis for the past seven weeks, but now everything’s okay, because, obviously, zombies are the most powerful aphrodisiac the medium of television has to offer at this point. Good for them. All of them: zombies, Benioff and Weiss, their sex buddy of an audience. Honestly.

For the rest of us, if we’re so hell-bent on analyzing things, we can talk about all the ways GOT keeps betraying its source material week after week. But analyzing the episodes on their own? No, thanks. It’s someone else’s sex party. No reason to spoil it.

leaving hh

Not a Review, Part I

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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.

Unbroken, Unbent, Unbroken, Unbowed, Unbowed, Unbent…

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A review of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” the sixth episode of the fifth season of “Game of Thrones”

by Miodrag Zarković

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(A small forward: Years ago, David Benioff and Dan Weiss were asked who’s their favorite character in the books. Many were surprised when they answered it’s Theon Greyjoy. Before you finish this review, perhaps you’ll agree with me that there’s a damn good reason they’re so in love with the only remaining son of Balon Greyjoy. And now, let’s go to the review.)

“But it also happened in the novels!” has to be the most hypocritical phrase ever uttered by those blindly in love with everything they see in “Game of Thrones.” The fact that the show’s supposed to be an adaptation of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series by George R. R. Martin, is something they remember and recall only when they think it suits them—while in the very next moment they can shamelessly claim it’s actually good that GOT deviated as much and that it owes no fealty whatsoever to its source material.

The closing scene of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” the sixth episode of Season 5, is one of those instances. Ramsay and Sansa’s wedding night bears some strong similarities with the corresponding scene in the books, claim these show-loving folks.

For the sake of argument, let’s agree that there actually is a corresponding scene in “A Dance with Dragons,” in which Ramsay Bolton does have sex with his new bride (though not Sansa, but her best friend Jeyne Poole), and that poor creature once known as Theon Greyjoy is also present and playing a part in the horror Ramsay orchestrates. In fact, not only that the scenes do resemble each other in quite a few ways, but also, what happens in the novel is even more disturbing than what Ramsay did onscreen.

So, one might ask, why is the show scene getting this negative reaction the book scene was spared from? Without a doubt, book Ramsay’s wedding night was recognized as one of the most disgusting moments in a saga not lacking in them, but it never received such a deep contempt its show counterpart is met with. Why is that so?

Now, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, the two showrunners, quite possibly don’t have any real answer to that question. And that is the saddest aspect of the entire “Game of Thrones” endeavor!

All Benioff and Weiss could offer would probably amount to: “People are just upset that it isn’t as in the book.” That is what show apologists keep repeating ever since the episode aired, after all. And they even go further, accusing show complainers of some kind of inhuman favoritism: “You were cool with Jeyne going through what Sansa tasted in the show, so why are you bothered all of a sudden? Is it because you care just for Sansa and not for Jeyne?”

In other words, they wonder why is Ramsay brutalizing Sansa Stark more upsetting than the same Ramsay brutalizing Jeyne Poole.

The answer is, however, quite a simple one: storytelling is really not the same as legality. Under the law, book Jeyne would deserve at least as big a compensation as TV Sansa, for the crime committed against both of them by Ramsay Bolton. But in a narrative way, book Jeyne is something completely different to TV Sansa, because a reader’s sympathy is not earned by the letter of law, but by inspiring him/her to bond with the character, and that takes a skill, or time, or, most usually, both.

Her brief appearance in the first book of the series “A Game of Thrones” aside, Jeyne Poole became a character not before she was introduced to Theon/Reek in “A Dance with Dragons.” Even though it is soon revealed, through scarce but precious exposition, what a nightmare she lived in ever since Littlefinger took her under his wing, only when she’s presented to Theon as “Arya Stark” is Jeyne’s real arc launched. And, like with many characters in ASOIAF, for poor Jeyne things first become worse before (if at all?) they get better. Things become way worse for her, actually, because what Ramsay submits her to is truly devastating—but, in a way, it also serves to lift Ramsay’s arc, because, in all fairness, he’s also relatively a newcomer at that point, and any insight into his mind and mentality is valuable.

So, when Ramsay brutalizes Jeyne on their wedding night in ADWD, it is actually the first time we see both of them in their respective roles: Ramsay as this unprecedented sadist whose menace is so all-consuming not the least because of the almost casual, effortless way he inflicts irreparable damage on any human being that had the misfortune to stand in his proximity, and Jeyne as a deeply traumatized individual who is surprised there’s something even worse than what she’s endured previously. In those haunting lines, Ramsay and Jeyne are fully realized as new, but important characters, worthy of readers’ full attention and despise (Ramsay) and empathy (Jeyne).

And then, there’s the third character, Theon, a.k.a. Reek, who’s forced by Ramsay to take part in the brutalization of Jeyne. Somewhere between the wedded couple, in the sense that he’s to be somewhat despised for his past crimes but also somewhat felt sorry for because of the constant psychological and physical humiliation he suffers from his “beloved” Ramsay, Theon is, actually, also debuting in his “new role.” A familiar face from the very beginning of the saga and a POV character in “A Clash of King,” Theon is revisited in ADWD and, at first, all we see are the horrific consequences on his mental and physical integrity left by Ramsay’s treatment. We witnessed some of that treatment in the first half of the book, but only when Ramsay orders him to prepare Jeyne for the marriage consummation the full extent of the torture Theon experienced in the Dreadfort is finally comprehended in full measure.

So, in the book scene, unsettling as it was, all three participants were fleshed out in unforgettable details and in the roles we’ve never quite seen them in before. From the pure narrative aspect, that scene is as effective as any other in ASOIAF, which does say a lot. With some other characters, something similar could look unearned, or cheap, or shallow, or manipulative, but with these three it was nothing but brilliant in its obvious depravity. When you’re trying to show the worst in humanity, that is how you want to do it, because otherwise you might as well be promoting it.

The corresponding scene in the show, however, is the polar opposite. In it, there was no character progression to speak of. As a matter of fact, for two of the participants it was just a repetition, just more of what these characters are already associated with and for a long time, while for the third one it was a clear regression, the return to past misery and then some more.

TV Ramsay was already there. In fact, he never left the place: between maiming Theon, killing random girls, having violent intercourses with his supposed girlfriend Myranda and flaying random lords, he barely had time for anything other than his sadism; even his conversations with Roose, that might’ve been useful for the creation of at least some perspective in this torture porn that poses as an arc, were kept to a minimum.

TV Theon was already there. In fact, he never left the place ever since Season 2. All he’s been doing these past years is witnessing or tasting Ramsay’s sadistic cruelty.

TV Sansa was not exactly there, but she was near enough. She’s been in a very similar place for more than two seasons, between Ned’s beheading and Joffrey’s death. And then she was taken from there and put on what looked like a different path. The new path was silly, of course, with several truly ridiculous elements like Littlefinger’s helplessness in the investigation into Lysa’s death or Sansa’s new dress code, but it did look like a path on its own. Alas, this season the path started meandering and, eventually, it transformed itself into . . . the arc of another character from another storyline! And to make matters worse, it reached a place that very much looks like the one TV Sansa was in already: in the hands of a merciless psychopath who takes pleasure in hurting her.

All of which means that, because of two decisions by Benioff and Weiss (to start showing the cruelty of their Ramsay and the torturing of their Theon as early as in third season, and to have their Sansa take the arc of book Jeyne), TV Winterfell is aimlessly repetitive. Since it’s simultaneously garnered with a lot of violence and sadism, it’s also cheap and exploitative. When you’re trying to depict the worst in humanity, this is the most offensive way to do it, because it can’t help but look like those primitive mechanisms for shocking the viewers by exposing them to some repulsive banality they’ll tend to talk about tomorrow at work.

But, truth be told, TV Winterfell wouldn’t be better off even if Ramsay didn’t brutalize Sansa on their wedding night. There’s a saying: When you’re on the wrong road, each stop is wrong too. The moment Benioff and Weiss decided to take their Sansa to Winterfell to marry Ramsay, her road became wrong. They put themselves in a hole out from which they could never crawl. Let’s speculate for a moment how the episode would look like if it ended with Ramsay restraining himself from consummating the marriage. It wouldn’t be offensively exploitative, but it’d definitely be ridiculously unconvincing and offensive for the viewers’ intelligence. Ramsay making love to Sansa instead of violating her? The same thing: that wouldn’t be Ramsay! And so on. There is no scenario in which Sansa’s marriage to Ramsay can work.

And that is because no one with Sansa’s experience from King’s Landing would ever willingly expose themselves to a marriage into the family that murdered their mother and brother.

Why did Benioff and Weiss make that decision then?

One can only guess, and not a single possibility is pleasing. But what is possibly even worse, is seeing some of the media that just a few weeks ago praised Sansa/Ramsay as a bold and welcomed departure from the novels, start to attack GOT all of a sudden. Similar to last year’s Jaime/Cersei fiasco, politically correct entertainment journalists again seem to care only for those issues that fit their shallow agenda, and rape is one of them.

Yes, of course, Benioff and Weiss don’t know how to deal with rape in a meaningful manner. But they don’t know how to deal with anything in a meaningful manner either. Have you seen the way they deal with death, murder, revenge, punishment, war, love, sex, religion, faith, honor, duty, emotions, slavery, responsibility, parenthood, poverty? Not a bit better than with rape. They are still to meet a sensitive issue they understand, let alone address in a competent way.

Just recall the similar fashion in which they changed Dany and Drogo’s wedding night in the pilot episode. Back then, the show was in its infancy and many a fan was willing to turn a blind eye to a misstep or two, so that scene created no uproar similar to the one inspired by Jaime and Cersei’s sept scene, but by all accounts it was worse. With Jaime and Cersei, they most probably didn’t intend to film it as a rape (if anyone’s interested, I can explain in the comments how, years in advance, I predicted the trouble they were going to have with the sept scene, because of Cersei’s changed characterization in the show, and all I saw in that scene makes me think they actually tried to remedy the mess of their own creation by making Jaime somewhat more forceful at the beginning), but with Dany and Drogo, they are on record admitting they really wanted the first sexual encounter to be as brutal as it was. Naturally, it never occurred to them that there was an important reason behind Martin’s decision to put Dany’s consent in the book: it completely eliminates the Stockholm Syndrome nonsense the show embraced. From the very start, Martin showed he’s not in the business of writing about characters that find their happiness by loving their abusers.

The critics were, however, okay with the nonsense from the pilot. Just like, until the very last episode, they saw no problem in Sansa marrying Ramsay. I’ll repeat once more: some of them were even congratulating Benioff and Weiss on a job well done!

I’d really like to know how would those critics solve the wedding night. Would they choose to make it ridiculous by having Ramsay act normal and omitting the rape? Ramsay? Normal? Do they really think that would cure the mess created the moment TV Littlefinger sent a raven with the marriage proposal to the Boltons?

It wouldn’t! That mess had no place in what’s supposed to be an adaptation of ASOIAF in the first place. You want Ramsay to rape someone on his wedding night? There’s Jeyne Poole for you. She’s not a living person, you know, just like Sansa isn’t. Jeyne can’t be hurt, not really. She can make sense or not, she can carry some meaning or not, but you won’t really harm her if you put her in Ramsay’s hands. So, if you want Ramsay to brutalize his wife, use Jeyne Poole. It will make sense. It did in the book, to great effect. But don’t put Sansa, or Brienne for that matter, or Cersei, or whoever, in Jeyne’s shoes, because it will make no sense whatsoever, and something will definitely be hurt: the intelligence of the audience.

By putting Sansa in Jeyne’s role, Benioff and Weiss practically ruined what little they managed to do with Sansa in the four previous seasons. It can never be overstated how lacking her TV arc was in comparison to its book origin, but once they sent her to Winterfell it lost any resemblance to any arc that could possibly have some meaning.

When show apologists say that the difference between Ramsay’s wedding nights in the book and in the show is no big deal, they miss the point because they ignore the narrative logic. Ramsay’s wedding night in the show could be tantamount to this hypothetical situation: Theon and Jeyne escaped Winterfell and Stannis’ forces captured them, but then, for some reason, Jeyne agrees to marry Clayton Suggs and, to her horror, he brutalizes her on their wedding night. That would mean that Jeyne’s escape from Ramsay was actually ineffective in a narrative sense and that, after the author manipulated the readers for a while into thinking she’s on her way to some sort of salvation, she just ends up in the same place as in Winterfell.

That would be repetitive and cheap and exploitative. Luckily, Martin will not do that, just like he never did anything similar. His world is no cartoon city, people do suffer terrible fates in his books, but never without a narrative reason, and never in a repetitive manner.

When you’re repetitive in a short form of fiction, it’s clumsy and silly. When you’re repetitive in a huge saga, it can be tiring and draining. But when you’re repetitive in an adaptation of the source material that is anything but repetitive, it’s outright pathetic. And when the repetition includes sensitive matters like violence, it’s also insulting and tasteless.

But the Winterfell sequence was not the only repetitive thing in the episode. There was one more thing, spotted in the already infamous fight scene around Myrcella Baratheon in the Water Gardens.

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First, the entire fight scene and everything that lead to it was ludicrously amateurish. From writing to acting, to choreography and direction, everything was simply embarrassing. Thankfully, it is discussed all over the internet and, from what was possible to observe, never in a forgiving way, so it’s not necessary to go through all of that here. There’s a suggestion, however. A Mexican standoff is, per Wikipedia, a confrontation between two or more parties in which neither party can proceed nor retreat without being exposed to danger. After “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” a new expression should be coined, A Dornish standoff: a confrontation of an ever-increasing number of parties in which not a single party follows any reason whatsoever in its actions and yet suffers no real consequence either. (I will not take this back even if it turns out Bronn was indeed poisoned with that dagger that wounded him, because the very idea of a seasoned warrior that brought poisoned daggers in a mission to kidnap a princess is fascinating in its absurdity.)

Second, let’s remember how Dan Weiss praised Kit Harrington’s fighting skills a year ago, in the “Inside the Episode” video for “The Watchers on the Wall,” the penultimate hour of last season. Weiss said that, when he and Benioff were checking the raw footage in the editing room, at one point they thought someone sped up a part of the scene with Kit, because Kit’s moves looked too fast and therefore unnatural. So, Weiss says, the two of them called the special effects guy and asked him to remove whatever effect was applied on the footage, because they didn’t want the final product to look like that. To their surprise, it turned out that no effect was applied and nobody sped the footage up, Kit was simply fast and handy with his sword.

Let’s also remember something that, years ago, secured my reputation as an obsessively pedant GOT hater: the essay I wrote about the second season of the show, in which the editing was especially critiqued. In particular, I wrote about the two instances from episodes 5 and 15, in which the raw footage was sped up in order for fight scenes to look “more effective,” which, naturally, resulted in the most essential problem motion pictures can ever suffer from: discontinuity of the experience of consuming a visual content.

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Well, the geniuses did it again, in this episode, in the Dornish standoff. When Bronn kicks Tyene and she falls on her back, she quickly jumps back on her feet. Ahem, not quick enough, it appears, because her jump was sped up in the editing room, which is why Bronn, who’s in the same frame all the time, makes some rapid and unnatural moves. If you look at Bronn while Tyene’s jumping, you’ll clearly see what I’m talking about and why no filmmaker in their right mind would ever do anything similar. That is how low this show actually is. They’re doing the one thing Weiss himself described as a no-no not a year ago. This episode was one big festival of repeated idiocy, hence the title of this review.

But who are we kidding? This show was never taken seriously by anyone other than Martin and fans (several actors included). By everyone else, it was always treated as a joke. Well-paid and fame-earning, but a joke nonetheless. After all, there are cock merchants in GOT now! And, please, did anyone catch why the hell Cersei summoned Littlefinger at all? When she told Qyburn to send a message, she insisted for Littlefinger to come immediately. But what was so important? She just wanted to hear him say that the knights of the Vale are loyal to the Iron Throne? Is that the reason Littlefinger had to leave Sansa in Winterfell?

Benioff and Weiss are charlatans, first and foremost. It is, I believe, wrong to ascribe sexism or misogyny to them. Like countless talentless writers, they are even less competent when they write characters of the opposite gender, and generally, characters whose experience they didn’t share personally. And, all in all, they’re no fundamentally better when dealing with male characters and their arcs. Just recall the ridiculous Jon arc in season 2, when his brilliant mission with Qhorin in the books was completely ruined just so he can flirt with and be dumb in comparison to Ygritte. Just look at TV Stannis and everything that happened to him whenever his scenes strayed away from the source material.

Benioff and Weiss endless incompetence suggests privileged backgrounds, which are typically associated with political correctness. Their rare but insightful political comments seem to point in the direction of progressivism as their real-life mindset. All of which could mean that they are not consciously mistreating women or homosexuals (or almost any other group, really) in their writing, but it is the product of their drastic lack of skill and craft.

Perhaps they are not Tywins of the House HBO, in that there is not some dark mission behind their missteps and failings. Perhaps they’re also not Ramsays, because they’re not even enjoying all the damage they’ve inflicted. Perhaps they really are like Theon Greyjoy when he, per some wild chance, took Winterfell under his command: murdering little children, just so they can appear competent and to hide their shortcomings.

A pound of flesh, but not one drop of blood

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“Game of Thrones” got their pound of flesh tonight. In a season that has seen nearly all characters obsessed with vengeance, Sansa Stark was shoehorned into an absurd plot for what was clearly now meant to have her terrible victimization and trauma be played out for shock value, under the paper-thin guise of this allowing her to get revenge on her family’s killers. In truth, we didn’t need to wait for the disgusting optics and aurals to be seen and heard in this sixth episode. Indeed, from the moment D&D proposed that Sansa Stark’s arc was interchangeable with that of Jeyne Poole’s—a character who can’t even be properly understood to have an arc in the full sense of the term—we could have predicted what an absolute travesty this all would turn out to be. For those who question why this could happen to Jeyne and not Sansa, the answer is simple: these two girls might have been friends in the books, but their identities and experiences are not one and the same. Jeyne is sent to a brothel to be brutalised and trained into being submissive and compliant. Sansa Stark remains in KL to suffer much abuse too, but her development as a main character is focused on her becoming stronger and more resilient as a result.

Unlike Jeyne, whose sexuality becomes the means of her terrible exploitation in the series, Sansa’s sexuality is tied to her liberation and empowerment. It’s not a matter of her being “saved” from rape as some readers interpret, but rather that Sansa is constantly resisting attempts to get her to submit sexually to her oppressors. She comes to understand in that famous wedding scene with Tyrion that her desires are important, and that she is not willing to sacrifice herself for what her husband wants, even if she’s in a situation where she couldn’t be more powerless. Sansa’s sexuality, and her control over it, is an integral part of her growth towards agency. When you have her raped in a show and still want to speak of her as being a player, you are not only warping the character’s development and themes critical to her storyline, but you are using rape as a plot device to motivate a character, which is every bit as bad as it sounds. For fans looking for some kind of hope after this appalling event, we can only direct you to the author’s latest statement on his blog, where he recommends checking out the TWOW sample chapters if you want to get an idea of where the real story is headed. D&D have their pound of flesh, but the true heart and soul and blood of Winterfell remains in the series written by George R.R. Martin.