Game of Thrones Wrap-Up: The Pack Survives, and the Starks May Win the Game

Starks

SPOILERS for Game of Thrones season 7.

 

In winter, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.

And who would have guessed a few seasons ago that the strongest “pack” on Game of Thrones would be the Starks? Think about it. The Tyrells and the Martells are all dead, the Arryns and the Baratheons and the Tullys nearly so. Even the Lannisters are so decimated and fractured at this point that their strength may never recover. Jaime may never be able to pull away from Cersei completely, but as of the finale, he no longer seems to support her unchecked megalomania.

Meanwhile, the Starks have only grown stronger this season, as we saw in the finale. The show’s been playing on the rift between Sansa and Arya, and Bran’s apparent apathy toward the whole thing. But it was all a ruse to trap Littlefinger at his own game. Littlefinger’s own pretty, deceptive words came back to bite him in the end.

And with a bewildered face that has already launched 1,000 memes, Game of Thrones‘ most manipulative character has been removed from the game board. Chaos is a ladder, indeed. And sometimes people fall off.

But I think what’s important here is how Sansa and Arya have learned from their parents’ mistakes. Littlefinger’s machinations tore their mother and aunt apart and ultimately led to both their deaths. Sansa, Arya–and yes, even Bran–stood together, and took down one of their most formidable opponents.

(As for Bran…I’ve about halfway forgiven him from his season-long arc of douchiness that led to me calling for his death just a few days ago. When it counted, he stood with his family. It still doesn’t justify all of his behavior, but I’ll give him some credit.)

Each of the Stark children bring unique skills to the table: Sansa’s political savvy, Arya’s badass assassin training, Bran’s Three-Eyed Raven abilities. Apart, none of them could win this game, but together, they’ve really come into their own.

And we can’t forget about Jon Snow. We may have confirmation now that Jon is Aegon Targaryen, but his loyalties have always been to the Starks. (Jon really showed how much he takes after his adoptive father in the finale when he refused to pledge his loyalty to Cersei–a move that would have been politically savvy, but would have betrayed the oath he’d just made to Dany in the previous episode.)

Jon remains King in the North, and he’s forged a powerful alliance with Daenerys Targaryen. Of course, he’s put himself in a fraught position, both because the Northern lords are unlikely to accept Dany as their queen, and because he’s Dany’s nephew. Putting the ick factor of their incestuous relationship aside, Jon now has a better claim to the Iron Throne than Dany does. Jon is one of the few characters on the show that’s never wanted power; the power he’s gained has been pretty much thrust upon him. The same can’t be said for Dany. She wants the Iron Throne badly, and Jon is a threat.

But even with Dany’s armies and dragons, she’s going to have a hard time going up against the combined strength of the Stark clan. Let’s hope that Dany remembers that Jon Snow is not “just a bastard.” Whatever Jon’s DNA might say, he’s a Stark at heart, and the Starks have learned the one thing that the rest of the great families have failed to master: that they’re stronger together than alone.

 

Beth Woodward is the author of the contemporary fantasy novel, The Demon Within (Amazon; Barnes and Noble). The sequel, Embracing the Demon, will be released in March 2018.

 

Game of Thrones Wrap-Up: The White Walkers are stupid and boring, and I don’t want to watch them

Night King

SPOILERS for season 7 of Game of Thrones.

 

Jon Snow is right: the White Walkers are the biggest threat to Westeros right now. Regardless of who takes the Iron Throne, they present a threat to all of humanity.

But honestly, so what?

It’s been clear since the first episode that the show’s end game was going to have to involve the White Walkers somehow. They’ve always been there in the background, slaughtering people and amassing an army beyond the Wall while our heroes and villains were too busy playing musical monarchs to notice.

But if the White Walkers are going to be the focus of season 8, then the show has done itself a disservice. Because the truth is, they’re just not all that interesting. From a viewer perspective, watching Cersei manipulate her way into power and Dany burn it all down with dragon fire is just way more fun.

What do the White Walkers want? To kill people, I guess. We got one glimpse of the Night King in one of Bran’s visions, so we know he was human once. Does it matter? Apparently not.

Even the most sociopathic characters on Game of Thrones have needs and wants and desires: Joffrey wanted power and sexytime with Sansa and Margaery; Ramsay Bolton wanted approval and validation from his father.

And to the show’s credit, Joffrey and Ramsay are both dead, and the remaining characters–even the “bad” ones, are much more nuanced than that. Cersei may be ambitious and power-hungry, but she’s always wanted to protect her children. Now, with all three dead, Cersei’s lust for power is all that remains–even overtaking her lifelong love/forbidden romance for her brother, Jaime. We hate her, but we love watching her. I found myself holding my breath multiple times during Cersei’s tension-filled meet with Dany, Jon, and Tyrion–and then later, when Jaime confronts her after she makes clear she has no intention of honoring her promise to fight the White Walkers. Cersei will do anything to hold on to her power, and with only six episodes remaining, it’s all fair game. Hell, is she even really pregnant, or is this a ruse to manipulate both her brothers? This is the stuff drama is made of.

But with the White Walkers, there’s none of that. They apparently have no motivation besides the mass destruction of the human race. Watching a zombiefied dragon burn down the Wall with blue fire was pretty cool, but it can’t sustain an entire season.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the best White Walker battle we’ve seen so far was in season 5’s “Hardhome.” It was a massacre on an epic scale, and characters that we’d come to care about–even over the course of just that episode were slaughtered. (Wildling Karsi popping up at the end of the scene, now converted to a wight, remains chilling.)

Meanwhile, the White Walker battle in this season’s “Beyond the Wall” just didn’t have the same impact. Aside from the fact that it was ill-conceived and, to be honest, kind of silly (“Let’s go beyond the wall with a dozen men and try to kidnap a wight from an army of 100,000! That sounds like a great idea!”), the tension was never built up in a way that made you believe that any of the main characters were ever really in any danger. Sure, the Priest of Epic Man Buns bought it, but he was so unmemorable that I had to go look up his name. (It was Thoros of Myr, for what it’s worth.)

Compare that to the battle between the Lannister and Targaryen forces in “The Spoils of War.” The battle matters because we care about people on both sides: Jaime and Bron on the Lannister side, Dany and Tyrion on the Targaryen. You may be rooting for Dany, but you don’t want Jaime or Bron to die.

But who cares if Jon Snow slaughters one White Walker or a thousand? Spoiler: no one. (A White Walker has no name…)

Game of Thrones has always been at its best during its character moments. This season, while uneven in plotting, has given us a lot of great character growth. For the final season, I urge the Game of Thrones writers not to focus too much on those White Walkers, and remember why we’re really watching.

 

Beth Woodward is the author of the contemporary fantasy novel, The Demon Within (Amazon; Barnes and Noble). The sequel, Embracing the Demon, will be released in March 2018.

Game of Thrones Finale Countdown: Tyrion needs to check his privilege

tyrion dany

SPOILERS, obviously, if you’re not caught up on season 7.

 

So something’s been bothering me over the last few episodes of Game of Thrones.

After losing allies Olenna Tyrell and Elliara Sand to Cersei’s machinations, Dany attacks the Lannister’s supply convoy as it returns to Westeros. The result is one of the most epic battles in Game of Thrones history. The Lannister soldiers would have been decimated by Dany’s Dothraki army alone. But when you throw in being torched by a freakin’ dragon, the result is…pretty amazing. (Seriously. If you haven’t watched it, you need to do so immediately. And if you have watched it, you need to go back and watch it again.)

That’s not why I’m upset.

In the next episode, Dany tells the surviving Lannister soldiers that they must pledge their allegiance to her, or they will be killed. Most submit. A few refuse. Two of them are Randyll and (the unfortunately named) Dickon Tarly, better known as Samwell’s assholish father and brother. Randyll, in a speech laced with xenophobia and racism, says that he will never submit to a foreign queen with an army of savages. Dickon is less certain than his father, but he’s a daddy’s boy. So they both get torched.

The rest of the Lannister army, not surprisingly, decides to bend the knee.

Tyrion spends the next two episodes fretting about this. Dany was supposed to be different than this, right? She’s not supposed to be violent. Maybe she’s going crazy like her father, Mad King Aerys, who burned his subjects to death willy-nilly.

How quickly Tyrion forget that last season, he watched while Dany burned an entire hut full of Dothraki khals to the ground, gaining herself a Dothraki horde in the process. And unlike Randyll and Dickon Tarly, the khals never got the choice to bend the knee. But Tyrion never worried about that.

But I guess I can understand Tyrion’s angst. For better or worse, he grew up among the great families of Westeros. He probably had dinners and play dates with a Tarly or two, and Dickon Tarly looks an awful lot like Tyrion’s own brother, Jaime (who almost died in the flames of Dany’s dragon.) But what irritated me is that we, the viewers, are supposed to wonder whether Dany’s going crazy and/or abusing her power, too. When Tyrion talks to Varys–usually the voice of reason for putting entitled lords in their place–he tries to downplay his concerns by saying he can’t make Dany’s decisions for her. Varys’s response: “That’s what I used to tell myself about her father when he was burning everyone alive.”

Yikes.

But the truth is, Dany has always been judicious in her use of violence. If she’d wanted to take Westeros by force, she could have flown her dragons in and torched the Red Keep a long time ago. She hasn’t done that, because she wants to minimize the loss of innocent lives. And in killing Randyll and Dickon Tarly, she gains an asset she was sorely lacking before: a Westerosi army loyal to her.

But I don’t think the real problem is Tyrion, or Varys…it’s the show itself. The racial optics of Game of Thrones have always been troubling, especially Dany’s story. One scene in particular has always stuck out to me. In the season 3 finale, after Dany frees the slaves in Yunkai, they lift her up on their shoulders and call her “mhysa”–Ghiscari for “mother.” You can still see Dany’s blonde hair and pale skin as the camera pans out, the lone white savior among a sea of brown people. (Fast forward to about 3:55 in the video and then watch until the credits roll.)

For the first several seasons, the show didn’t even have any leading non-white characters. The only ones it has on the show now, Missandei and Grey Worm, are both former slaves who were, surprise surprise, freed by Dany.

Let’s not forget that the show’s creators, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, are also in the process of creating an alternate history series, Confederate, in which the south wins the Civil War–and they were shocked, shocked I tell you, to realize that people might not think it was such a great idea. (For the record…I think it could be an interesting concept, if executed correctly. I just don’t think Benioff and Weiss are the ones to do it.)

Dany’s behavior–particularly, her use of violence–hasn’t changed much in the last few seasons. Hell, she showed herself willing to burn people alive all the way back in season 1. If it’s a problem now, it was a problem before. But the show never called it out, because it assumes we will care about white people more.

 

Beth Woodward is the author of the contemporary fantasy novel, The Demon Within (Amazon; Barnes and Noble). The sequel, Embracing the Demon, will be released in March 2018.

Game of Thrones Finale Countdown: Will Someone Please Kill Bran Stark Already?

BranStark

SPOILERS, obviously, if you’re not caught up on season 7.

 

Dear David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, George R.R. Martin, and anyone else who might be in a position to make these decisions:

Please, for the love of the old gods and the new, kill Bran Stark already.

I get it. He’s the Three-Eyed Raven now, although–much like Sansa and Arya, I still don’t know exactly what that means. Apparently, part of what it means is that he turned into a gigantic douche.

A few weeks ago, Bran reunited with his sister, Sansa, for the first time in years. He tries to convince her that he’s a basically omnipotent being that can project himself into animals’ minds and is apparently also a raven with three eyes…yeah, I don’t really blame her for being skeptical. But then, in an apparent effort to prove it, he says, basically, this:

Sansa, I was spying on you with my mad omnipotent powers on your wedding night. It was snowing. You looked hot. I watched while you got brutally raped by your husband multiple times. That must have sucked.

Now, imagine that with even less emotion and empathy, and you pretty much have Bran. Apparently, petty human emotion is beneath the Three-Eyed Raven, even when discussing your host’s sister’s spousal rape.

Bran also knows that Littlefinger is up to something–he threw Littlefinger’s season 3 “Chaos is a Ladder” speech back in his face a few episodes ago.

Littlefinger was shook up that the youngest Stark knew something he had no way of knowing–but not shook enough to stop sowing conflict between Sansa and Arya. One would think the oh-so-omnipotent Bran might mention to his sisters that Littlefinger is playing them like fiddles, but apparently he can’t be bothered. He’s too busy…being omnipotent? Staring at trees? I’m not really sure.

Bran’s story has always been the least interesting of the Stark siblings, but at least I felt invested in him as a character. But now that character is gone, replaced by the shell that the Three-Eyed Raven seems to be. Unlike the boy he replaced, Raven Bran lacks empathy and humility. (Interestingly, the previous Three-Eyed Raven didn’t seem to be a giant douche. But maybe that has something to do with the fact that he was played by Max von Sydow, an actor who could probably turn in an Oscar-worthy performance doing antacid commercials. I have nothing against Isaac Hempstead Wright, but he’s not Max von Sydow.)

Granted, Game of Thrones isn’t lacking for characters without empathy or humility–Cersei Lannister’s still kicking, for now–but at least those other characters are interesting and fun to watch. Raven Bran isn’t.

To top it off, the transition between scared teenager and omnipotent super-being seems…unearned. Is Bran Stark really gone? Because when Bran initially became the Three-Eyed Raven last season, he didn’t seem so emotionless. Traumatized and frightened, yes, but not emotionless.

So when did Raven Bran, as we know him now, happen? Is this some kind of PTSD thing? That would make sense, given everything that Bran’s been through? Or did the Three-Eyed Raven take over Bran’s psyche and disappear Bran entirely, a la Illyria taking over Fred on Angel. But in the latter case, we at least got some transition, and a heartbreaking death scene for a beloved character. But in Bran’s case…nothing.

Long story short: omnipotence is a plot device, not a character trait.

So please, put us all out of our misery and have Raven Bran tell Sansa and Arya that Littlefinger is playing them. Then have him send a raven up down to Dragonstone to let Jon Snow know he’s about to get it on with his aunt. And then kill him quickly.

 

Beth Woodward is the author of the contemporary fantasy novel, The Demon Within (Amazon; Barnes and Noble). The sequel, Embracing the Demon, will be released in March 2018.

Game of Thrones Rant, Part 2: The Dance of Dragons edition

Shireen_Baratheon_Season_4_profile

“Game of Thrones,” what am I going to do with you?

SPOILERS!!!!!!

The last two episodes have had some of the best scenes in the show’s history. In last week’s “Hardhome,” Jon Snow and the Wildlings battle the White Walkers. It had some of the show’s coolest imagery—the four White Walker horsemen on the mountain, mirroring the four horsemen of the apocalypse, not to mention the Night’s King’s badass ‘bring it’ gesture when he resurrects the dead Wildlings as White Walkers.

And then there was Dany’s battle with the Sons of the Harpy in the fighting pits. Pretty much everything that happened from the point the Harpies showed up onward was perfect, but I didn’t think it would equal or potentially top last week’s Hardhome battle…until Drogon, Dany’s long-missing dragon, showed up. The final shot of Dany climbing onto Drogon’s back and taking off, with Tyrion and the others staring in awe, is going to go down as one of the most memorable images in the show’s history.

It’s not often that a show can have two of its best endings in its run two weeks in a row.

But before we got to see Dany fly off into the sunset with her dragon, we had to watch Stannis Baratheon burn his own daughter at the stake. Shireen has always been a memorable supporting character, the one thing that humanized the stiff, uncompromising Stannis. (Also, she’s still alive in the books, though in fairness, as the show is beginning to pass the timeline of George R.R. Martin’s novels we’re probably going to be seeing more and more of that.)

I’m not sure how I feel about it. The scene is horrifying, and it’s meant to be horrifying. That horror is not mitigated or downplayed, with even Stannis’s crazy wife Selyse begging for mercy. It also highlights just how unsuitable Stannis would be for kingship, in a season where he’s actually started to look like a reasonable contender. King Tommen is too young, too green, and too bendable to everyone else’s will. Dany has spent the season imploding in Meereen. And every other contender is dead. I won’t say Stannis was starting to look good, exactly, because Stannis always struck me as a drip. But with his firm command of his people, he was starting to look like a more seasoned, capable leader than Dany or Tommen. But this episode proves that he’s too much under the thumb of Melisandre—not to mention too selfish and cruel—to be an effective ruler.

But the problem is, I just don’t buy it. Shireen is the one character on the show that he’s ever shown any affection toward. He’s continually protected her from his wife’s cruelty, and just a few weeks ago refused to allow Melisandre to sacrifice her. The loss of their supplies at the hands of Ramsay Bolton was a significant one, and Stannis’s rationale in sacrificing Shireen is that it will save all his men—and he’s obviously torn up about it. That said, if he would just give up his claim to the throne, he wouldn’t have to worry about being attacked by the Boltons in the night. Furthermore, does he really think that burning his own child at the stake is going to endear his men to him?

Stannis may be a drip, and he may be a zealot, but nothing up until this point has shown me that he’s far enough gone to sacrifice his own child.

Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about this one yet. But at least I got a badass dragon flight as a consolation prize.

Why is “Game of Thrones” So Rapey?

Sansa

“Game of Thrones,” why do you have to be so rapey?

Way back in season 1, we had Daenerys and Khal Drogo. After Dany is forced into marriage with Drogo by her throne-seeking elder brother, Viserys, Dany and Drogo have a troubling first night together.

But hey, it’s okay, because those savages just don’t know any better. (Don’t even get me started on the racist implications of Dany’s plotlines throughout the series.) Once Dany and Drogo learn to communicate, and Dany shows Drogo the fine art of having sex face-to-face, they fall in love. Awww. Not. I thought we had gotten over this Luke and Laura-esque nonsense back in the 1980s, but I guess I was wrong.

Fast forward to season 4. Cersei Lannister has finally reunited with her lover/twin brother, Jaime, after years of separation. But Jaime has changed. The show had spent the previous two seasons doing something I thought impossible: redeeming him, a character who had been primarily been known as the man who pushed Bran Stark out a window back in episode 1. He had also been physically mutilated, his sword hand having been cut off by his captors. Cersei has been through a lot, too: war, battles, her daughter being sent to Dorne, and her eldest son’s death. When Jaime returns, we thought it would be all happy happy, joy joy reunion. But Cersei rejects him. Then this happens.

The worst of it is that afterwards, we’re still expected to root for Jaime. The very next episode, he gifts Brienne of Tarth his sword and armor and releases her to go find the now-missing Sansa Stark. She names the sword “Oathkeeper.” So much emotion in those final looks between the two of them. If only things were different. If only Jamie could have lived happily ever after with Brienne. It’s not his fault he was a Lannister, and Cersei is, as he said, a hateful woman. Nothing is his fault. Poor Jaime.

SPOILERS for the last several episodes.

Fast forward again, this time to last week. Sansa Stark has married Ramsay Bolton—the son of the man who killed her mother and brother. Viewers of the show already know Ramsay is a sadist; we’ve been shown this over and over again since season 3, when Ramsay castrates Theon Greyjoy and send his genitalia back to his family. So yeah, no redeeming qualities there.

But silly me, I thought, maybe—maybe—we could expect something different. Since season 1, Sansa has been a largely passive character. But in the latter half of season 4 and the beginning of season 5, we got to see a different side to Sansa. She’s finally beginning to realize the power she has, and how she can use that to manipulate people. Her decision to marry into the family of her worst enemy was a calculated one. She wanted to avenge her mother and brother, and she thought that being back at Winterfell would help her do it. She didn’t know Ramsay was a complete nutjob. To be honest, I was kind of hoping she would kill him before it got to that point.

Not so much.

The worst of it is that Sansa’s rape scene isn’t even about Sansa. No, it’s about Theon—because apparently, he needs to see a girl he grew up with be brutally raped right in front of him in order to break Ramsay’s thrall over him. But even that doesn’t work correctly: in this week’s episode, when Sansa—now back to being the damsel in distress—asks Theon to help her get a message to her family’s supporters, Theon betrays her to Ramsay.

Awesome.

As if that wasn’t enough, we have enough near-rape scene this week, when Gilly is attacked at the Wall by two men of the Night’s Watch, and she’s rescued by Sam. Weren’t the Night’s Watchmen supposed to take vows of celibacy? Is there any man in the universe of “Game of Thrones” who doesn’t think he should have free, unrestricted access to women’s bodies?

Well…there is Sam, the chubby Night’s Watchman who’s been protecting Gilly and her baby for the last couple of seasons. So what does Gilly do after Sam rescues her again? She has sex with him for the first time. Naturally. Because that’s totally what I would do right after I was almost raped. Right.

Science fiction and fantasy have a bad habit of raping its female characters. It’s often used either to help a character “power up,” as in Dany’s story: her marriage to Drogo is the first step in becoming the Mother of Dragons and fighting for the Iron Throne. It can also be used, as sci-fi/fantasy author Seanan McGuire puts it, to “put cocky heroines in their place,” which we see in Cersei’s story. But the worst is Sansa. In less than one episode, Sansa goes from being a character with her own distinct point of view to a Woman in a Refrigerator, her trauma being used primarily to serve another, male, character’s storyline.

“Game of Thrones” appeals to me because it has some of the most interesting, complex female characters on television. Although the world is distinctly patriarchal, each of the female characters subverts and manipulates that power structure in some way to gain more agency for herself, and it’s awesome.

But this is also the series for which the term “sexposition” was coined. Violence is a mainstay of the “Game of Thrones” world, but it is only the female characters who are subjected to sexual violence again and again and again—even when these scenes were written as consensual in the books (as Dany’s and Cersei’s both were).

And I have to say, I’m tired. I’m getting to the point where I don’t know if I can, or should, follow this series any longer. I’m invested in these characters and the story, and I want to find out who wins the Iron Throne as much as the next person. But I’m so sick of tuning in week after week just to see yet another female character being raped, and yet another rapist we’re supposed to sympathize with.