MAY 13, 2019
This week on Dear Television:
Aaron Bady, Sarah Mesle, and Phil Maciak consider “The Bells,” the new album from Swedish death metal band “Game of Thrones.” Does it shred? In any case, below you’ll find spoilers for the episode, “The Bells” (unrelated), from the TV show, Game of Thrones (also unrelated). If you don’t want to know any information about “The Bells,” don’t read these essays, and also don’t watch “The Bells.” Don’t ask any questions. Don’t open your browser. Cancel your HBOGo subscription. Delete your Twitter app. Go back to sleep. Dream dreams. Awaken to a new day. Forget everything you ever knew about Westeros. Go back to the beginning. Adopt a rescue dog. Eat healthier. Start over.
Previous episode: Season 8, Episode 4, “The Last of the Starks”
Daenerys Was Right!
by Aaron Bady
Daenerys is not the “mad queen.” She is certainly not in a great place at the moment, but not only does she have a history of murdering her enemies with a gruesome calmness — as she did last night — I want to propose that her current problem is not a lack of rationality. Her problem, if it is a problem, is that she thinks killing her enemies is fine, and she allows herself to decide who her enemies are, and she’s decided that people we like (and, also, generalized innocent people) are her enemies.
Benioff and Weiss have an explanation, and it’s that she suddenly breaks on the battlefield. “I don’t think she decided ahead of time that she was going to do what she did,” one of them says; “she makes the decision to make this personal” when she’s sitting on the dragon, on the wall, and “sees the Red Keep.” She goes mad, in other words, and murders millions of innocents on a sudden explosion of fury; like her father, the Mad King — whose leftover wildfire she ignites — she burns King’s Landing.
I’m going to proceed as if all the things that Benioff and Weiss say in the post-episode featurette are stupid and wrong, however. For one thing, she doesn’t make it personal. After all, if the sight of the Red Keep suddenly causes her to fly into a rage — “in that moment on the walls of King’s Landing, when she’s looking at that symbol of everything that was taken from her” — then why does she immediately start torching the city instead of the Red Keep? Why does she elect to decide to burn multitudes who never did much of anything to her, who she’s never known? Why, instead of only killing the bad queen and the bad queen’s officers — and hoping everyone else decides to love her — does she instead demonstrate that she is completely, totally, and unstoppably terrifying, someone so vengeful and destructive (and maybe even crazy) that you really don’t want to even think about coming close to considering getting anywhere near her bad side?
Oops, I answered my own question! I think Daenerys is not only rational, but absolutely right. We know how rational she is because she’s clearly spent those long days in seclusion analyzing her enemies’ new technology and developing a three-dimensional tactic to counter it: attack the ships in their sun-blind spot, from above, then fly straight up to thwart the crossbows on the harbor wall, and then attack the giant crossbows on the gate wall from behind. That’s a smart plan!
But every scene leading up to the battle shows us a Daenerys who is a step ahead of everyone else; in her seething vengeful fury, there is complete clarity: she knows what she’s going to do, she blames others for making it her only option, and she’s angry at everyone for what she’s about to do. But she’s about to do it because she knows what Cersei told us in the first season, that there are only two outcomes to this thing they are all doing: you either win or you die. If Daenerys wants the Iron Throne — and she does want it, it’s the only thing she wants and has always wanted, her entire character is built on wanting that one thing to the exclusion of all else — then she can’t let herself be a Ned Stark, having it both ways and dying in the middle ground. To win, she must follow Olenna Tyrell’s advice: ignore the clever men (“the lords of Westeros are sheep”) and be a dragon. So that’s what she does. And because she all but tells Jon Snow that this is what she’s going to do, the only interesting question is why we aren’t listening when she says it. Are we as dumb as him?
Benioff and Weiss also explain away her decisions by citing her lack of advisors and guidance. But what she has really lost are allies. Her allies have betrayed her, all of them but Grey Worm. They don’t quite admit that they have; they use sophistry to pretend they haven’t, or their high opinions of themselves, or they betray her offscreen when we don’t have to see them struggle with their decisions. But they’ve all betrayed her. She is completely right about that, and she sees it more clearly than anyone else in the show. Sansa is actively working to turn Jon against her, Arya tells Jon that it was right to make a deal with Daenerys and also to break it as soon as convenient, Tyrion has been talking treason with Varys and gives him the crucial intel he has (apparently) been sending by raven to all the other kingdoms, and Jon started it all by disobeying her. Along with the open revolt of the Starks, Tyrion’s loyalty to his brother remains a problem, as does his constant stream of terrible advice, and what’s perhaps worst is that — like Jon — he seems to think he can betray her without it really being a betrayal. Even the Onion Knight betrays Daenerys when Tyrion asks him to help smuggle Jaime into the city and why on earth would he do that?
What on earth are they all thinking?
Daenerys is the only person thinking clearly, and that goes for us as well. If the audience’s sympathies are with Jon, Sansa, Arya, and Tyrion, we will tend to empathize and make ourselves understand why they did what they do. And their betrayals of Daenerys do reflect who they are as people: Jon spent a lifetime suffering from what his father’s silence about his parentage did to him, and so he decides not to be silent about his parentage; Sansa has suffered greatly from the machinations of King’s Landing, and she does not wish to be vulnerable to it again; Arya likes to collect enemies, not allies; and Tyrion’s cynical cleverness — and wrath — has been inverted into a sentimental credulity and a disastrous need to have it both ways. These decisions make a kind of sense; they make the mistakes that fit their characters.
If our sympathies help us understand their motivations, however, that sympathy (and our pride at connecting the dots) can make it easy to overlook how dumb and inflexible they are all being. We see them make the same mistakes over and over again and refuse to learn from them; because we like them — and because we like piecing together their character arcs — we accept Jon being Jon, or Sansa being Sansa. But while Jon’s actions are in character for him — this isn’t the first time he’s tried to say no to being King, or ordered his people to accept an alliance they don’t want — why on earth would he think he could be successful this time? Has he learned nothing from his experiences? Sansa refuses to trust anyone else — as she has many times — but her situation has changed quite a bit. And wasn’t the last lesson she learned from Littlefinger that sometimes you do have to trust your family, not betray them? (Now that she’s installed in Winterfell, you’d think that the safe choice for her family would be not to break your word to your brother, immediately, just so you can piss off the dragon queen). Arya goes on a commando murder quest because that’s what she does, but she already had a moment — with Hot Pie, in episode 7.2 — where she decided to give up her murder quest and go home to Winterfell; why is she back on her old bullshit? And Tyrion, my God, Tyrion is supposed to be incredibly clever and literally everything he does fails; is he not clever enough to re-examine his decision-making process?
We like these characters, so we accept them staying the same and refusing to learn from their many fuck-ups. And there are so many because none of these characters have any flexibility. When their situations change, they keep doing the same things, making the same mistakes, and having the same results. Tyrion is the worst, and most self-deluding: every time he faces a difficult problem — divided loyalties or a choice of what to lose — he tries to use A Clever Plan to have it both ways. Over and over again, it fails. Over. And. Over. Again. Why isn’t he learning? It’s been a long time since we saw Tyrion with a book.
Rationality is the ability to learn: to extrapolate from past experiences, to analyze the present situation, and to anticipate possible future outcomes. None of these idiots are rational; they keep doing the same thing but expecting a different result (just as we do by watching) and we accept it because we recognize their characters doing the things their characters do, and because we like their characters, we’re happy to watch it on our screens. But the only rational person, here, is Daenerys. She has experienced rebellions, both for her and against her, and has learned from them; she correctly apprehends that time is not on her side (King’s Landing is not going to rebel against Cersei and her allies are all betraying her, which will only continue) and she correctly realizes that the only way to win — and not die — is to be a dragon. Without allies who will serve her out of love, she must do what dragons do: eat the sheep.
When Jon and Tyrion do really dumb things that blow up in their face — or when Sansa and Arya act in stunningly short-sighted ways — the show gets away with it because they are Our Heroes. We not only forgive them, we fail to see through them; we let them have it both ways. This particularly works for the men, who the show expects us to see as loyal to their queen, even as they are flagrantly disloyal to her. Because Jon Snow is the hero of the show — who will probably kill Daenerys next week — we don’t see him betraying her when he repeats his father’s mistake (of revealing the inconvenient genealogies of ruling monarchs). And when Tyrion literally engineers the escape of his brother so that he can engineer the escape of Cersei, the Queen’s main enemy, we somehow don’t see this as a betrayal. In both cases, this is just an honest and a clever man doing what’s necessary because their Queen won’t.
It just might possibly be that the gendering of the situation makes it a little bit easier to see them undermining her, in everyone’s best interest — even hers — without being marked by disloyalty, because patriarchy lets you “serve” a woman while also ruling her. Maybe the gendering of the situation makes it easier to see her as abruptly “turning” in a moment of rage and madness and grief and burning King’s Landing. Maybe because she’s young and pretty, and has always been surrounded by male advisors, we overlook how well she’s learned the lessons that Olenna and Cersei have taught, and how completely in line with those lessons her actions are.
But a deeper problem is that we don’t want to admit that Daenerys is right, because we don’t want to admit what monarchy is. There are no good kings and queens, something Varys should have known (Jon Snow would be a good king, maybe, and his reign would be extremely short). Kings and queens are selfish people who will kill you when they need you to die; while Tyrion should have been reading Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Carl Schmitt, Daenerys was out learning, in the field, what exactly the throne is. She is open about it. She is honest. She had wanted everyone to love her, and tried to make it happen. But as the people who loved her kept dying — and as her “allies” turned against her and her enemies grew stronger — she correctly identified the failure of this strategy, and changed tactics. Just like she attacked the ships from the sun — ambushing them instead of letting them ambush her — she has abandoned a failing tactic, based on her knowledge of the field of play, and adopted a winning one.
And she wins. She has an effectively unkillable dragon and her army is victorious; while Jon and Tyrion and Sansa and Arya were out there doing literally nothing, she ran the board. No one loves her, but is anyone going to fuck with her? Is anyone really going to fuck with her? After that?
I guess we’ll find out next week. But if there’s any realism left in this show, they won’t. She might be wrong to imagine that her reign will be any different than those before her; she shows every sign of being the latest iteration of every king or queen ever. That kind of narcissism is the most normal thing in the world, so of course she thinks she’ll be an exceptional monarch (and, lest we forget, “she’s a girl who walked into a fire with three stones and walked out with three dragons. How could she not believe in destiny?”)
The problem is that we, the audience, expect her to be different. We expect the will of the governed to matter, and we expect a throne to be replaced with something different and better, something like, I don’t know, just spit-balling here, a two-party representative republican democracy with a free press and a bill of rights and a separation of church and state. We are moderns, and we like these characters, so — with the same anachronistic illusions as bedevil so many period dramas (where white people never seem to be racist, for example, and women often manage to enjoy full social personhood) — we expect them to be moderns too. Tyrion and Varys and Jon want a different world — our world, we narcissistically assume — and so we imagine they are the good guys, and that they will win; we imagine that they are seeing clearly and working to bring about Hope and Change.
But none of these people live in a world of hope and change. They live in a world where dragons kill sheep, where you either win or you die, and where “politics” is the maneuvering amongst allies, rivals, and enemies, a game of thrones in which “the people” only suffer. What Daenerys (like Olenna and Cersei) believes, and commits to, makes this the only interesting episode of the season: that power is power.
Who are Daenerys’s enemies? The answer is incredibly easy, despite Tyrion’s soft-hearted words about hostages and enemies: anyone who opposes her is an enemy, anyone who does not bend the knee. She kills enemies, allies, and bystanders when they refuse to bend the knee; this has been true of her for a long time and has continued to be true. When Varys betrays her, he becomes her enemy and she kills him; when the people of King’s Landing fail to reject Cersei and bend the knee to Daenerys, they become her enemies and she kills them; when Sansa, Arya, Jon, and Tyrion betrayed her, they became her enemies and she will kill them, or try.
The problem, ultimately, is not that Daenerys is a mad queen; there is no such thing. It’s a redundant phrase. Power corrupts and absolute power — dragon power, destiny power, fantasy power — most of all. To be a king or queen is to win the game, and to win the game, everyone else has to lose, and die. That’s the game. And if the fantasy of “High Fantasy” is always that absolute rulers might rule well and kindly and with good intentions for their people, then Game of Thrones has abruptly woken up and remembered what a queen is.
I drink to eat the skull keeper,
Burning it All Down
by Sarah Mesle
Few refrains have fallen from my lips more often in the last two years than “burn it all down.” I did not literally say of the social world, as Daenerys does of Cersei, “we will rip misogyny out, root and stem!” but that is a fair paraphrase of my recent inner monologue. And now, oh ho! Here is Game of Thrones to remind me a key lesson: that misogyny is even in the ideas of root and stem. Misogyny is even in the burning it all down! What a world!
Anyway, “The Bells”! I actually enjoyed watching it quite a lot, which is not to say I don’t understand the animosity it has provoked. For me it fell into a category that might be called, “misogynist but in an interesting way,” which is a not-terrible standard to hope for if you’re going for a media life that occasionally offers something beyond disappointment and terror. (By that logic: “extinction event but in an interesting way!” was also somewhat on offer here.)
I think that one way to explain all the strong mixed feelings about this episode is that the show sat in such an uneasy relation to the character arc it was portraying. “The Bells” offered a really spectacular display, but not in any way a very smart thematization, of some of the basic ways the world responds to women, particularly women in power. Another way of saying this is that I could not help but read “The Bells” as a giant half-gestated metaphor for birth, motherhood, and even abortion: Daenerys’s sovereignty in general becomes continguous with her womanhood, her motherhood. And the show is right to think that motherhood matters for women, and for women as leaders, and for women led by leaders, but it couldn’t figure out a way to tell the story without manifesting a fear as old as Ann Hutchinson: that we can’t elect (or crown) women without electing their monstrous, potentially murderous, womb experiences too.
One way we see this is in the tension between Daenerys and Tyrion and their complex circling around the ethics of war: Tyrion’s concerns about “thousands of children” who will die and Daenerys’s investment in “future generations” who might be freed. By my count Tyrion uses the word “innocent” five times in “The Bells,” which feels especially broken record-y because there’s so little dialogue in the episode overall. All season, Tyrion has been obsessed with Cersei’s unborn child — he believes her desire to protect it might justify any number of out-of-character humanitarian activities, despite the fact that Jaime knows that motherhood is in no way the benevolence engine Tyrion would like it to be (“All the worst things Cersei’s done, she’s done for her children,” Jaime warns). Now Tyrion is applying the “protect the unborn” principle more generally. Just as Cersei should protect her innocent child, and just as Jaime should join her in doing so (“You do care about one innocent, you know you do,” Tyrion admonishes), Tyrion will help the innocent himself: “Tens of thousands of innocent lives; one not particularly innocent dwarf,” he tells Jaime. “It sounds like a fair trade.”
I myself think that there are lots of reasons to avoid slaughtering a city of humans, but their “innocence” is not necessarily one of those reasons. One of the strange things about the episode is how forced Tyrion’s language of innocence feels in this show that’s worked so hard over so long to show us the range of ways that human lives might be worth living. None of the characters I like best in this show fall under the category of innocence: not Varys who dies, Arya who doesn’t, or the Hound or Jaime or Tyrion or even Cersei herself. (“I want our baby to live,” says Cersei, as she faces her fate in the crumbling infrastructure of the world she had made to protect it.) So what is this category doing here? What does it even mean?
It wouldn’t be right to say that children and “innocence” have come into play this season precisely because this season is a battle between two queens rather than two kings. Even I wouldn’t go that far. Innocence has been all over this series for a long time: see my post from two weeks ago for further thoughts about Game of Thrones’s “hurt girls” as longstanding symbol.
But even so, and especially after that episode, this season’s attention to the specter of innocence seems ratcheted up: not only is Tyrion constantly talking about innocence, but the camera zooming around the crumbling streets of King’s Landing repeatedly chooses women and children as emblems of the suffering that Dany causes, in particular the single mother and daughter whose story we follow through the episode until the girl is burned, Shireen-like, at episode’s end. And all the attention to the “innocents,” the mothers and children caught in the middle, helps draw attention to the maternal frame of this battle, waged between two grieving mothers: one queen who is still carrying her surviving child, and another queen who is riding hers.
I can’t help thinking that a key to this episode is the particular way it asks us to view Dany’s relationship to Drogon, her dragon and child: it asks us to compare Dany here to Ned. In the very first episode of Game of Thrones, Ned Stark raises his sword and brings it down on the neck of a man who “betrayed his oath,” a man who deserved to die (if we had not forgotten all about the Night King last episode, we might talk about how the execution was, ironically, the gesture that merged Game of Thrones’s political plot with its climate change plot, but whatever). Here is some politics for you: “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” Ned explains this to his son Bran. Bran, who is not a raven at this point and thus not yet annoying, is also the figure for the viewer, who is being taught how to see things.
Executions frame the first season of Game of Thrones. Ned’s “carry out your own sentence” model of governmental responsibility strikes me as one Game of Thrones has always asked its viewers to admire, even as we’re meant to question whether his code of ethics is sustainable in a world dominated by little shits like Joffrey. The show told us (and Bran) to trust Ned because he was good at deciding who should be killed, and good at killing, especially compared to other people’s ways of deciding and killing. These are exactly the questions we’re returning to now at Game of Thrones’s end.
So here’s a question for you: to what extent does Daenerys Targaryen, in the first half of this week’s episode, follow Ned’s principle? When she kills Varys, who “betrayed” her (the crime isn’t the same, but the two episodes use the same word), is she doing what Ned says a man should do, and swinging her own sword?
The answer isn’t a clear no. But it isn’t a clear yes either. When Drogon rears his head out of the shadow behind Dany, his face aligned with hers, we see the relation between Dany’s mouth speaking the word “Dracarys!” and Drogon’s mouth making Dany’s word manifest. There is no doubt of her responsibility. But there’s also none of the neatness, none of the tidiness, that Ned’s masculine sword edict offers. Drogon isn’t Dany, her children are not her, responsibility does not work that way in this situation. Whereas Ned asks his children to watch him wield a weapon in defense of the social order that protects them, Dany’s child is her weapon and the reason she is wielding that weapon. Everything is all mixed up. This is not an unfair representation of motherhood!
Here I can’t help thinking about my favorite monstrous mother situation, the movie Aliens, which merits maybe a comparison here in that one way to describe what’s frustrating about the experience of watching Daenerys kill all of King’s Landing is that it’s not dissimilar from what it might be like to watch her transform from Ripley (sentimentalized motherhood) into the Alien queen (monstrous motherhood) over the course of an episode. But of course, the reason Aliens works so well is because it taps into our (“our”) sense that motherhood is always monstrous: something both you and not you grows inside you, and comes out in ways that you can’t control, to become something you can’t fully control. For all that Ned wanted sovereignty to be about tidy responsibility, it’s really not: it’s always multiple and gossipy and incestuous and angry.
Daenerys executes Varys for betraying her, even though she knows he is not the only one who did; she claims responsibility for sentencing Varys even though she later says that “Sansa killed him as much as I did.” The execution at the beginning of “The Bells,” which aims to condense political violence into discrete acts of responsibility, works in tandem with the mayhem at the end of the episode, when that violence spills out, promiscuously, everywhere. That it does so is not entirely about gender, or motherhood. But the way “The Bells” does so seems weirdly staged to make us focus on those aspects. The rhetoric and visual framing and narrative framing never lets us separate Dany’s murderous violence from her womanhood, and always wants to remind us that the people who suffer most from her violence are other women, while Tyrion and Jon watch in slow-mo.
My favorite thing I ever wrote about Game of Thrones was in response to Dany’s ill-fated trip to save Jon from Jon and Tyrion’s terrible “North of the Wall” zombie plan. I wrote:
Dany, meanwhile has been given power and more power, and now we see why: because her final role will be to rescue Game of Thrones from its own opening conceit. What made Game of Thrones itself was that it was willing to kill its heroes. But now its heroes do not have to die, because Dany and her dragons will rescue them. The love of a good sacrificial woman will save this show from its own genre.
I have been thinking about this claim from last season in light of this season’s episodes. Am I sorry to see Daenerys cast off any tie or allegiance beyond her own desire or rage? Would I rather have had a more falsely heroic version, where her violence has fewer costs? Not really. But I’m not sure why those were our choices. And the way “The Bells” messily connects motherhood, sovereignty, and personal expression with mass slaughter makes me worried about what comes next — what will happen in the middle distance, when Arya rides her white horse into Dany’s dragon-built world. I am hoping that when Arya and Dany meet there, they can find some way to talk about what, beyond a false myth of innocence, makes life worth saving, and worth living: what we might grow after it’s all burned down.
In hopes there’s a dinghy waiting for us,
Themes Are For Book Reports
by Phil Maciak
Are David Benioff and D.B. Weiss bad writers? I don’t know! A lot of criticism has been spilled over the years and over the course of this divisive season so far about whether and how they are indeed bad at writing, the thing that is their job. Some of this is about narrative pacing. Some of it can be summarized through the revealing cultish distinction between pantsers and plotters. Some of it is about their skill as adapters, ventriloquists, and, now, kind of impressionists of the work of George R.R. Martin (who, according to those same critics, is a good writer). David Benioff wrote the screenplay to The 25th Hour, which is one of Spike Lee’s best films, and also the screenplay to Troy, which is not even one of Wolfgang Petersen’s best films, so, in terms of other evidence, I’d say it’s a draw. In any case, they have always — with necessary faux-humility — presented themselves less as creators than as mediums for this story, and it shows. But I’m not interested in talking about Benioff and Weiss as writers of Game of Thrones; I want to talk about them as critics of Game of Thrones.
Over the course of this series, we’ve had pretty regular access to what Benioff, Weiss, and their fraternity of writers and directors think about the work they’ve done. Now seems like a good moment to memorialize, not just who these men have been as creators, but who they have been as interpreters — forced or forthcoming — of their creation. To the naked eye, they have been pretty bad at it. A good place to see this is within the stony, dimly-lit confines of the “Inside the Episode” featurettes HBO has released weekly throughout the series. Benioff and Weiss have been rightfully mocked for their performance in these pieces. They speak as talking heads, narrating onscreen action, offering character insights with a searching tone of voice that suggests this is maybe the first time either of them have thought about what they’re saying. They begin nearly all of their speculations about character motivation with “I think,” which is patronizing to the viewer if we imagine Benioff and Weiss are indeed fully in control of the development of these characters, and just absolutely bonkers if it’s suggesting they really have to guess about the motivations of characters they themselves have written.
Weiss, for instance, speaking about Tyrion’s last goodbye with his friend Varys, says: “I think Tyrion is saying goodbye to his best friend in the world outside of his brother…And the amount of guilt that he feels over being the cause of his best friend’s imminent death it’s hard to get your head around.” You’ll note that the way I introduced this quotation was by saying that Weiss was speaking “about Tyrion’s last goodbye with his friend Varys.” This is roughly the same description Weiss offers. But he offers it as an insight: “I think Tyrion is saying goodbye to his best friend.” This is maybe a piddly observation, but it’s telling. Weiss is presenting a basic, surface-level description — a description of this scene that he has to imagine was shared by nearly every viewer who watched it — as the special insight of its writer. But let’s bracket that, let’s say that that isn’t the meat of Weiss’ revelation here. What does he follow it up with? “The amount of guilt he feels…it’s hard to get your head around.” What are these featurettes for if not to get our heads around things? And shouldn’t Weiss have his head around it already? We invest, as fans and critics and scholars, a great deal into the connections we form with these characters. That’s what TV is about — the artful management of empathy, the expression of story and meaning through form, the captivating or calling out of audiences. Should we be irked that even inside the episode these characters remain opaque to their creators? And how artful can these men be as managers if they’re so inartful as critics?
If we imagine these to be intimate moments, two creators taking a moment to watch the show as fans, then maybe we can be generous about the comments they make. But whether we watch the featurettes as genuine performances or not, what they show us is a pair of artists who seem willfully mystified by their own work.
Sometimes they’re more than mystified. In a recent post-episode featurette, Benioff narrates — as we watch Rhaegal getting downed by Euron’s scorpion — that Daenerys had “forgotten about the Iron Fleet.” As numerous even marginally attentive viewers pointed out the following day, Daenerys had been apprised of the current status of the Iron Fleet in the preceding scene. I realize that there’s an aspect of this that smacks of mockingly nitpicking continuity errors or fishing through the “Goofs” section on IMDB, but this is something else. We have a writer, speaking within a documentary frame, accompanied by an editing style we can easily associate with the form of the “video essay” — calling upon the evidentiary status of the medium of film! — telling us things we know to be false about the show he’s written. And we don’t know them to be false because we’re comparing Daenerys in the show to Daenerys in the book, and we don’t know them to be false because they grate against our affective attachment to the character, we know them to be false because the show told us they were false.
The best thing about a show like this is its ability to open out into the world, for us as fans, viewers, critics to think alongside and with the show. I don’t care whether or not Dany remembered that the Iron Fleet was behind that cliff. It’s one thing to write a flat character; it’s another thing to insist that your character is flat. It’s one thing to have a plot hole; it’s another thing to introduce one after the fact. The show Benioff and Weiss describe to us is different, in quality, in complexity, sometimes in actual fact, than the one we watch every week. I don’t need artists to perform exegeses on their art, and I don’t need them to acknowledge and validate every idiosyncratic take. I don’t need artists to say anything at all — as far as I’m concerned, these episodes belong to us the second they air. But if they’re going to talk to us about it, they ought to hold the door open, so to speak, rather than closed.
I hesitate to call this gaslighting, because a) I don’t think there’s sinister intent, and b) I don’t think they necessarily realize they’re doing it. But the concept feels at least a little fitting in part because a) historically, these slippages and denials and erasures have come up when the writers and directors are confronted with bone-headed decisions about female characters, and b) this sort of shit doesn’t have to be intentional to be corrosive. It’s, in ways that became clear this week when Weiss claimed Daenerys’ sizzling of King’s Landing was a game-time decision, the difference between a hysterical woman and a complex arch-villain.
Maybe it’s a little unfair to blame them for the blandness of their commentary in these featurettes. It’s clear that HBO is shooting for a level of depth and specificity more befitting a press junket than an undergraduate classroom. But, even that said, it’s hard not to imagine that these clips are talking down to a majority of the show’s audience, that they represent a point-of-view considerably less engaged and interpretively nuanced than much of the show’s own viewership. For all the trolling and bad faith argumentation and overreaction on Twitter, there are egg accounts that are willing to think more probingly about the motivations of these characters than Benioff and Weiss seem to be. But, again, the problem isn’t that the observations are banal, it’s that Benioff and Weiss are using the platform they have to discuss the show — a show whose audience is hungry to endlessly dissect and creatively engage with it — to lower the bar for discussion.
This wouldn’t be a big deal if it were limited to the featurettes, though. These commentaries are symptomatic of a larger problem that’s popped up occasionally in the past with the show and its producers. Earlier this season, for example, when viewers criticized the battle of Winterfell for being poorly lit, cinematographer Fabian Wagner responded, “I know it wasn’t too dark because I shot it.” He then proceeded to tell viewers that they needed to adjust their TV settings to account for the “cinematic” style with which he approached his task. In a broad sense, this is the cinematographer for a popular TV show telling the audience that it was their fault that they didn’t enjoy an episode; in a more granular sense, it’s the cinematographer for a popular TV show simply not caring enough to think about how his audience would consume his product.
To cite another famous instance, in 2016, Game of Thrones decided it was going to show Sansa’s rape from the point of view of Theon Greyjoy, a passive bystander. This isn’t a wild interpretation; it’s a pretty basic description. As Sansa is being assaulted, the camera cuts to a close-up shot of Theon watching in horror, and then the episode ends. That’s how editing works. But the writer Bryan Cogman disagrees:
Another argument — and I get why this criticism was leveled at us — is the idea that we took Sansa’s story away from her and made it all about Theon [by cutting to his face at the end]. I personally don’t believe that’s the case … Certainly Theon’s redemption journey is an element of the subplot. But if you really watch this scene it’s played from Sansa’s viewpoint, for the most part. The main reason we cut away at the end, frankly, is that this was Sophie’s first scene of this nature, and we didn’t want to show the attack. And so we cut to Theon to hear the attack. I understand why many people reacted to that, [thinking] we were making this scene about Theon and not Sansa. I’m sorry it was viewed that way. All I can say is it’s certainly not my intention when I wrote it or when we were producing it … We could have stayed on her face of the entirety of the attack, that would have been a perfectly valid choice. To me it was about being respectful to Sophie.
Here, rather than cutting interpretation short the way Benioff and Weiss do, Cogman puts forward a bad-faith interpretation as canon. He doesn’t “believe” that cutting to Theon’s face makes it about him. He turns a matter of film grammar into a matter of belief. There are plenty of fine interpretations on both sides! “I’m sorry,” he says, “it was viewed that way.” Again, while Benioff and Weiss underestimate viewers, Cogman invalidates them. As I wrote when this kerfluffle occurred, “People ‘viewed it that way,’ because that’s the way it was shown to them.” But viewers, especially when they perceive a problem, are overreaders, they are doing it wrong, they are not seeing what’s there — for a series that is so animated by fan reaction and investment, the public comments of the producers of Game of Thrones rarely seem to respect the way their audience actually watches Game of Thrones.
Benioff and Weiss only want to talk about this show as a medium for these characters. I get that — it is, in the likely best intentions of Benioff and Weiss, a gesture of respect and restraint to not interfere with the complex relationships viewers have formed with their characters. But it also absolves them — and Cogman and Wagner — of their role as artists, shapers, makers. If they are simply the passive agents by which the story tells itself, if no decision they make can fundamentally alter either the integrity of Martin’s source text or their own intentions, then they bear no responsibility for what the story says at the level of content or form. For Cogman, there’s no difference between what he meant to do with the episode and what the episode does. If viewers disagree, that’s on them. The “Inside the Episode” videos reinforce this dynamic by aping the format of YouTube video essays that promise to “explain” famous movies by pointing out relevant details as though they are secret codes. (Clickhole regularly parodies this as “This Will Change the Way You Watch ____.”) And, in so doing, they simultaneously oversimplify and mystify the interpretive act. Criticism is remedially redefined as the basic parsing of narrative information, and so actual critical engagement — with form, with ambiguity, with politics — gets pushed outside the discourse. We become cranks when we describe what we see. We are conspiracy theorists for having theories at all.
In 2013, Andy Greenwald asked David Benioff about the ideas and intentions behind the third season of Game of Thrones. “Themes are for eighth-grade book reports,” Benioff replied. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a statement from a writer that’s more contemptuous of the act of interpretation, more committed to a particular — low — opinion of his viewer. Sure, making fun of “Inside the Episode” is low-hanging fruit, and it’s understandable that Cogman and Wagner might be salty when called out on their mistakes. But, as we reach the end of this show, and we come to a final verdict on these showrunners and their show, it’s worth keeping comments like Benioff’s in mind.
Not every artist has the sort of insight about their own work that we might expect from Henry James or Toni Morrison or Alfred Hitchcock — artists operating, not only out of inspiration, but out of a coherent, dynamic theory of art practice. But it’s one thing not to be particularly interesting on the topic of one’s own work, and another thing entirely to seem actively disengaged — publicly — in the process of processing that work. I’m fully willing to imagine that the conversations about this show, no matter how misguided we find the outcomes, could be intense and detailed and messy in the writers’ room. But when these men speak publicly, they produce a worryingly simplistic vision of the world they’ve helped create. Benioff and Weiss come across as incurious and defensive; their lieutenants come across as actively hostile to the viewer experience. The show they represent in their critical comments is flat. It’s a narrative that resists interpretation, that is only ever performing the most basic version of itself, that is a closed system. Inside the episode, this show does not gain dimensions; it loses them. It loses us.
I kinda forgot about the Iron Fleet,