Programming Note: These reviews are written from the perspective of someone who has not read books. They contain liberal speculation as to future developments, but these are based only on what has aired on the show so far (not even including the Next Week On trailers), and thus are intended to be safe for the spoiler-averse. That means NO MENTIONS OF THE BOOKS WHATSOEVER IN THE COMMENTS. DOESN’T MATTER IF IT IS THINGS THAT HAVE ALREADY OCCURRED OR CAN NO LONGER OCCUR AT THIS POINT IN THE SHOW, OR PREDICTIONS I MAKE THAT ARE DEMONSTRABLY WRONG. IF YOUR COMMENT INCLUDES THE WORDS “IN THE BOOKS”, DON’T POST IT.
Prior recaps can be found in here.
“Oathkeeper” starts by breaking from tradition, which has indicated for the last couple years that we check in on Dany for one sequence at the close of an episode, rather than the opening. The base material here is as much of a foregone conclusion as the last couple times Dany slaughtered some aristocrats, but the execution was as good as it’s ever been. Part of that is that Mereen has a scale and effects budget behind it that makes it seem like a genuinely sprawling city, whereas Yunkai and Astapor had the feel of the handsomely-appointed soundstages. The budget still has limits, of course, as that final shot of Dany atop the pyramid conspicuously lacked a couple dragons swooping and screeching around it.
The other reason I liked this better was that the focus on Grey Worm lent it some novelty, and we got to see a level of strategy involved that was not based around pressing the “MY DRAGONS!!!” button. The Masters were never going to turn back Dany, but Grey Worm is just ancillary enough to be a potential casualty, so there is a teensy bit of tension to the sequence.
But it’s been a long while since that storyline could hold a candle to the action in Westeros in my estimation, and I was still more interested in watching Marge manipulate the wee monarch Tommen (and his kitten, Ser Pounce), or Littlefinger vamp it up with Sansa. I’m a little torn how to react to the show coming so clean so quickly about the conspiracy to off Joffrey. On the one hand, I sort of feel like they could’ve gotten some mileage out of a mystery plot. But on the other, some kindly Samaritan dropped a spoiler about Olenna in the comments immediately after the wedding episode, despite multiple, bolded requests not to do precisely that. So I’m glad to not have to tiptoe around that for weeks on end.
Anyway, Littlefinger is a devious twat. But you have to respect his balls. It’s one thing to realize that not having a motive to murder someone makes it easier to get away with it, but it’s another to have the stones to go ahead and off a king who was your ally just because you think the next one in line is more predictable. But what I really can’t wait for at this point is to see what Varys does when/if he finds out what went down. He’s smart enough to realize that it was his attempt to warn Olenna about Littlefinger last year is probably what led her to get in bed with him.
After last week’s grossness at Joffrey’s bierside, Jaime’s storyline is a little off in that he’s back to acting somewhat nobly, and it doesn’t seem like the show is even aware of what happened last week. I’d like to think the show was making some sort of intentional point about how recently our current notions regarding rape came about, but the conflicting interpretations of what the scene was supposed to convey that have been expressed in interviews by the various writers, directors, and actors involved make it hard to buy that. It seems more like they just figured that the GoT audience expects a certain degree of sexual transgression from the show and failed to account for how different it is to depict something like rape in a graphic-but-unequivocally-negative context and tossing it off as a relatively minor faux pax by a fan favorite.
That said, there is room for a reading of the scene between the siblings wherein Cersei’s berating of the “Lord Commander” for failing to properly protect Joffrey and Tommen as implicitly rebuking him for betraying his role as her protector in such a horrible way. Such an interpretation does seem to fit the character of Cersei, whose unhappy lot is defined by feeling completely subjugated to the whims of men (be it her father, husband, or brother/lover) and being too proud to let them see how much it hurts her. But also maybe I want to think that so I can enjoy scenes where Coster-Waldau plays wounded nobility opposite a suddenly-sentimental Bronn, or says a near-tearful goodbye to Brienne, as I would’ve previously. You know, when he was just an unrepentant fucker of sisters and killer of cousins and children.
But damn, it’s hard not to feel something when he says goodbye to Brienne. That this show has lured such a large, mainstream crowd to a place where they are familiar enough with fictionalized medieval forging technology that you can tug on their heartstrings by having one character give a bastard sword +1 to another is rather remarkable. And that it can also mine pathos from naming that sword, something that even some characters within the show regard as deeply uncool, is similarly amazing. The geeks have really won out, in case that wasn’t obvious. But damn if I didn’t get a lump in the throat when Brienne dubs it Oathkeeper, which is the highest tribute she can think to give a gift from a man who has complained so bitterly about being known as Oathbreaker. And then feel weird about it because the man raped a grieving widow next to the corpse of her son last week.
Again, that’s a hell of a thing to shake, particularly from a character that is still portrayed in a largely sympathetic light. It’s interesting to contrast it with the mutineer subplot in this episode, which is full of wall-to-wall depravity that makes last week’s scene in the sept look polite and tasteful in comparison. The mutineer material is also interesting because apparently it’s been greatly expanded upon from the books (and that’s all we’ll say about that, thank you very much), and it also functions as a sort of microcosm of the whole show, with Rast the human ballsack getting to learn firsthand that those who are suited to take power can be the worst at wielding it. In that way, Kal Tanner seems to be a nightmare combination of Joffrey’s viciousness with Robert’s physical prowess. If he’s not quite as horrifying, it’s only because one secluded keep is not an entire kingdom, and because we know from the first scene of him in charge that there is a reckoning on its way in the form of one of the few purely heroic characters on the show.
And that slots in with why I don’t expect to see many think-pieces written this week about the rapefest that Kal’s been throwing at Craster’s, even if it is more graphic, extended, devoid of any possible ambiguity as to consent, and inflicted upon more wholly innocent characters. Because no matter how “villainous” Cersei may be on the extremely subjective scale of GoT likeability, her attacker is not presented as anywhere near so one-dimensionally evil as the mutineers. It may be unpleasant to witness an evil fuck like Kal Tanner brutalize helpless women, but there’s no question that he’s doing it precisely because he’s an evil fuck (with a comeuppance on the way). That’s not upsetting in the same way as seeing a character we’ve come to like victimize a woman who, while frequently hateful, is already in a place of extreme hurt and vulnerability.
It feels a bit odd to take issue with this, as one of the great strengths of the show is how thoroughly it subverts one-dimensional and absolute judgments of any of its characters or situations. One of the things I like best about it is how it presents complex scenarios without apology and makes very little effort to tell you how to feel about things, and I imagine that ethos is what enabled the creative team to make such a seemingly-unwitting stumble. Why is this the bridge too far, you can almost hear them asking, and not any of the other horrific rapes and beheadings and castrations and cannibalism we’ve graphically depicted?
What I think is that it steps onto the very fuzzy line between a lack of hand-holding and outright nihilism, one that I find it crucial to remain (just) on the right side of in order to enjoy the show. I’m all for the show painting in shades of gray, and generally have a very high tolerance for darkness and brutality in my entertainment. But there is a very fine distinction that exists in my head when it comes to gray characters. When it feels like the show’s POV is that everyone is a gray character because even the most evil people have glimmers of compassion and the capacity for goodness from time to time, I am on board with that. If done right, it feels perversely hopeful – HBO’s recent True Detective went for this in its final episode, but not as successfully as its predecessor Deadwood, which is the most sneakily optimistic of the blood-soaked, gritty, nudity-filled historical dramas that have populated cable in its wake. It also quite probably the greatest TV show ever made, but I digress.
The point was that it’s uplifting in a way to acknowledge that even terrible people are capable of moments of surprising grace, and if this can be expressed without excusing the terrible things they do, it resonates all the more. What’s trickier is exploring the same territory from the opposite side. If it feels as though the point is that even the good guys have flaws and failings of their own to overcome, then that is in its own way a mature and worthy goal. But it also means that you run the risk of accidentally saying that rape is something that even good guys are going to slip up and do every now and then, which…yikes.
This is not necessarily confined to rape, of course. When a show that traffics in antiheroes comes at these issues from the wrong end, you get some of the more problematic aspects of shows like Dexter or Sons Of Anarchy – shows that, at their worst, seem to imply that deliberately murdering people by the dozens doesn’t mean you can’t be a basically all right guy*. And that is, I think, the problem the show stepped in with Jaime**. Because framing it as “just” a failing on his part on his way to becoming a better man utterly dismisses the effects on the victim. Other people can and have written about the issue better than me, but turning Cersei’s rape into something that happened to Jaime is an insult on top of an already grievous injury. And the show not even seeming to realize that is an entire other layer of insult on top. So that’s what I think the problem is there.
Oh, also the previously-unseen Lord of the Dead turned a baby into a frozen wizard abomination at his secret arctic lair. So that’s also something to keep an eye on for next week.
…is it next week yet? Oh, come on!
*An interesting middle note between those shows and a Deadwood is the “original” cable antihero drama, The Sopranos. It had none of the optimism about human nature of Deadwood, but its contempt for its characters’ behavior seem to only grow more palpable as the show got later into its run, which is exactly the point where its lesser progeny would become more precious about their own Bad Boys and lose any sense that the occasional finger-wagging was really sincere.
**I think there’s also something significant about how fictional depictions of a scenario more akin to date-rape is more upsetting to our modern sensibilities, because we still struggle with how to handle that issue today, whereas we’ve come to a relatively full societal consensus when it comes to outright enslavement for the purpose of “fucking them til they’re dead!”