MAY 13, 2015
This week on Dear Television:
- “50 Shades of Greyscale,” from Sarah Mesle
Previous episode: season 5, episode 4, “Sons of the Harpy.”
Following episode: season 5, episode 6, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.”
50 Shades of Greyscale
By Sarah Mesle
May 13, 2015
SOMETIMES I feel like Game of Thrones is my Christian Grey. Think about that in the most generous way possible. I realize the comparison calls to mind bad acting and worse dialogue, but that’s not what I mean; I’m not comparing the epic sweep of Game of Thrones to the camp of 50 Shades itself. No: I mean that Game of Thrones came into my life like Christian came into Anastasia’s: unexpected, well-funded, dazzlingly attractive, hot but maybe abusive. It’s like Game of Thrones invites you out every Sunday night and sometimes you’re given a gorgeous dress and a helicopter ride, but sometimes you’re marched into a Red Room of Pain and Ramsey is in there, waiting ominously. Dear Television: should I dump this show, or marry it?
This week’s episode was one that really had me biting my lip, Anastasia-style. In many ways “Kill The Boy” was an elegant and stylish episode, hewing to a narrow swath of plot and a monochrome color palate, a decision made more significant in contrast with the episode’s beachy final sequence. But those very qualities, those same aesthetic moves, seemed designed to ratchet up the unpleasantness, the claustrophobia, the fearfulness. I admired this episode, but I cannot say I enjoyed it. I felt like I was being toyed with by a show that knows I love it and is very interested in how much I’m willing to take.
My sense of tortuous intimacy was amplified, of course, because the episode itself was so interested in parsing the vexed ways people bind themselves together. We could track “Kill the Boy”’s agenda in several ways: juxtaposing warm Meereen with the frozen North allowed the show to compare Jon to Dany as struggling leaders; Dany to Sansa as isolated women; Brienne to Missandei as struggling advisors; Dragons to White Walkers as both practical and rhetorical threats. But what interests me more than these narrative pairings themselves are the emotional details of how they were executed. Revulsion and desire are opposite feelings, we like to think. But very often, Game of Thrones shows, they travel together.
As if to really drive this point home to us, “Kill the Boy” organized a substantial part of its narrative around one of Game of Thrones’s few remaining real villains: Ramsey Bolton.* Ramsey’s been around a bit this season, grinning blandly at Sansa, but this is the first time he’s really been unleashed upon us. I wasn’t particularly happy to see him, although I understand that establishing his prominence helps organize the plot. But everything about Ramsey’s scene with Myranda, for instance, was horrifying — Myranda’s petulant Ren Faire Mean Girl attitude, Ramsey’s creepy association of torture with boredom, the unnecessary lingering on Myranda’s nudity, the fact that the Game of Thrones wiki refers to Myranda as Ramsay’s “bedwarmer.” The very way “Myranda” is spelled offends my aesthetic sensibilities. Their encounter was like a parody of everything people — and by people, I mean me — might hate about Game of Thrones.
Even so, there was much to admire here. It’s a kind of dark brilliance that Ramsey’s lover is also his “kennelmaster’s daughter” — she is one of his dogs, the subhuman vehicles of his cruelty, but also the master of them, and thus metaphorically someone also able to master the vicious animality of Ramsey’s own nature. If the camera lingers salaciously on her body, it also remains longer than is comfortable on her face: pained, pleasured, desirous. What she desires is both bigger than sex and inseparable from it.
(In passing I’ll mention that Myranda’s Mean Girling with Sansa — needling in on Sansa’s memories of her mother, leaning intimately over Sansa’s hand-stitched wrist — reflects the same sort of viciousness-through-intimacy we see elsewhere. Do you think we’re going to have much more Myranda this season? God I hope not. What if things get really bad for Sansa, and Myranda and Ramsey come after her at once?! Game of Thrones: PLEASE NO.)
What’s uncomfortable about Ramsey, besides the fact that he is a horrifying sadist bastard, is that he’s so vividly aware of how intimate fear and hatred can feel, and he uses that knowledge to his advantage. Ramsey “owns” Myranda — God, really, I hate that spelling — in a very different way from how he “owns” Reek, but clearly the two relationships exist in tandem with each other (and not just because Myranda was part of Theon’s castration). When Ramsey opts to “forgive” Reek at the end of their scene together, both Reek and the audience breath a huge sigh of relief. But what Ramsay knows is that his forgiveness is itself a kind of punishment, a scene of subjection, in which Theon can only be recognized as a person to the extend that he’s willing to supplicate himself to Ramsay’s idea of what kind of a person he is. Theon kneels in penance. But he also kneels like a suitor. It’s worth noticing that what Ramsay asks for is Theon’s hand. Clasping it, Ramsey’s forgiveness takes the form of romance; of a perverse and abusive engagement.
So what about this episode’s other kneeling suitor, Hizdahr zo Loraq? Dany is not a sadist; she is not like Ramsay. But she is not, in this episode, entirely unlike him either. Dany, too, knows how fear binds to love: that’s her whole thing. We see it earlier in the episode when she performatively feeds a Master to her dragons, talking all the while about motherhood and care: “A mother never gives up on her children.” Whispering over the master’s shoulders, letting her hand linger on Hizdahr’s back, Dany plays on the confusion created when she deploys her beauty and her ruthlessness at the same time. Even in her final scene with Hizdahr, her apology is laced with a kind of power, amplified here because Hizdahr’s cringing posture calls to mind Theon’s. “Fortunately a suitor is already on his knees,” she says, announcing her intention to marry. And indeed Hizdahr has been pressing a suit with her: for mercy, for his life. He will get both to the extent that he concedes to her version of what his life might be.
I feel like we should pause here, though, and say: whoa, remarkable! Several times in this show characters praise the necessary diplomatic role of marriage (just a few episode ago, Roose Bolton made a similar point — ew, Roose Bolton!). And it is not the first time that a woman has been active in that process; Margaery has been very strategic about marriage, for instance, and has directed traffic behind the scenes so that she will be asked, by men, to participate in the marriage she hopes for. But Dany is trying to do something different here: to take marriage’s power directly in her hands, as a woman. And I think that’s awesome but, frankly, it also raises a lot of questions. How does inheritance work in Meereen? Will Hizdahr be the king, or a consort? What powers will this marriage give him? Will they sign a prenup? Is he now step-dad of Dragons? How does she imagine the Westerosi will feel about a king or consort from Meereen? Dany: what is your end game?
But all this is in the future: right now we have some more relational weirdness to think about. While we’re thinking about tense moments of anger, power, and intimacy, can we also talk about Jon and Tormund Giantsbane? (Confession: I did not remember his name was Tormund Giantsbane and have been referring to him in my notes as “Viking Guy.” I really like him, and the name Tormund! He is the Bane of Giants!) Jon’s negotiation with Tormund was gripping because it was so heated with a range of emotions: relief, worry, betrayal, passion. The passion was mostly anger, of course, but as these two men, both powerful and both limited in what their power can do, stood close to each other, challenging each other, sizing each other up, part of what they were negotiating was whether they could trust each other. And that gave their anger a special kind of intimacy, a frisson. I’m not sure if they found their argument kind of hot. But I did!
It was a little hard to go from Jon’s well-wrought persuasion of Tormund to his less-successful wrangling of the Night’s Watch in general. For all my complaining about the unpleasantness of this episode’s focus on manipulation, I was quite frustrated with Master Aemon’s unhelpful (“Strength! Kill the boy!”) exhortation of Jon: Jon has strength, that’s not the problem. What he needs is politics: rhetoric, persuasion. Like Dany, he is trying to build a bridge between two groups that don’t see each other as fully human. (Daario refers to the Sons of the Harpy as “rats,” for instance; the Night’s Watch “let them die!” way of talking about the Wildings has a similarly dehumanizing force.) Just as Ramsay is pushing Theon out of the human, Jon needs to pull the Wildings back in: it is language and feeling, not just strength and boy-killed manliness that will accomplish this.
What’s also interesting in this episode about intense emotional maneuvering is that Sansa, who understands the risks she’s facing and knows what she has to do to avoid them, did so little maneuvering herself. Sansa’s surly behavior during the episode’s protracted dinner scene was a pleasure; the episode made us like her by allowing her to speak the insults we’d like to say ourselves. And surely this disaffected behavior shows a sort of character development: she’s done groveling, and that’s a treat. But I couldn’t help but think about how very much she was not helping herself here. What would have impressed me more than her snark is any kind of strategy; any kind of sense that she was trying to, in Petyr’s words, “make this Ramsay boy her own.”
But on the other hand, I’m not sure what Ramsay was up to either. For the last two episodes he’s seemed a bit defanged when it comes to Sansa: pleased at his father’s favor, and charmed at the idea of a beautiful wife. But now he’s being cruel for the sake of — what? Pleasure, certainly, in his own cruelty, but Ramsey’s typically been more or less strategic about how his cruelty unfurls. What does he gain by pairing Sansa and Reek? I don’t mean that rhetorically: I suppose he means to humiliate Sansa. But do we think he believes that a humiliated northern bride will help him humiliate, and thus better control, the North? I guess my question is: are we meant to read this as a strategic decision on his part, or as simply the kind of uncontrolled cruelty that could also be a mistake? Basically: I’m confused, here, about what sort of threat we’re supposed to find Ramsay to be. To me, it seems he is indeed becoming someone who can be outmaneuvered, if only Sansa would be willing to try.
Finally, let’s talk about the episode’s final sequence: Tyrion and Jorah. This scene has some connection to the rest of the episode: the Stone Men are unhuman-humans like the Wildings and Reek; Tyrion and Jorah are learning how to connect like so many other characters. But in other ways, the segment stands outside the rest of the show, and its tacked-on quality illustrated that.
This segment was beautiful. It was perhaps the loveliest the show has ever given us. And it seemed right and good that it is Tyrion who is brought to face with this incredible beauty, as he is the one who can appreciate both its lyricism and melancholy more fully than almost any other remaining character. I love that it spurs him to poetry, and I love that he knows poetry; we haven’t seen reader-Tyrion, really, since season one. It seemed to me that this sequence was a perfect example of visual storytelling: not only could viewers see how the ruins of Valyria were changing Tyrion and Jorah, we could also see, through this landscape, a depth of collective memory that shapes the entire Game of Thrones world. It was exposition through image, and it was lovely.
Dear Television: you can probably see that I’ve struggled to make sense of the highs and lows of this episode. Does this final scene fit within the framework I’ve scaffolded together here? Likely not. But let me say that this final scene, which seems on the one hand like the beautiful hand-glidery date with Christian Grey — to return to my awkward early metaphor — was ALSO REALLY FRUSTRATING! Because GOD! TYRION! GET TO MEEREEN! I had spent all week in a tizzy of anticipation, wondering how Tyrion would respond to Dany’s Dragons (the teaser from last week told us he would see them) and if, perhaps, he would get to Dany himself. But no! No. The Stone Men dropped in just as the Dragons appeared, which I concede has a kind of poetry to it, but it means that Tyrion did not get to talk about the Dragons. And now: Tyrion has to WALK to Meereen, with a greyscale-infected Jorah. Will this be fun? The odds are low.
Game of Thrones: I love you. I do. But I wish you didn’t get off on being so withholding.
Grey Worm’s alive but the show doesn’t know what to do with him,
*I appreciate the narrative elegance of making Ramsay into a more important antagonist as the show’s simultaneously working to make Stannis more appealing as a protagonist. I’ve been wondering where this season is heading, and it was only during this episode that I started to really care, beyond Sansa’s stake, about the coming battle between Stannis and the Boltons. FRIENDS: Can we take bets on when it will take place?!
Previous episode: season 5, episode 4, “Sons of the Harpy.”
Following episode: season 5, episode 6, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.”