Tuesday, May 21, 2019

GAME OF THRONES 8.06 - "THE IRON THRONE"




“There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story.  Nothing can stop it, no enemy can defeat it.“

Tyrion’s speech in the Dragonpit solidifies that Game Of Thrones is about, above all else, the power of stories.   This feels like a bit of an abrupt conclusion to draw based on the 8 years of incest, murder, and zombie apocalypse we have witnessed, and there is a bit of a stretching involved in getting there. Whether it works hinges on two factors: whether you can buy this contention as generally true, and whether Game Of Thrones specifically has earned the credibility to make that case.  As an overall concept, I think there is enough truth there, especially if you ascribe a broader definition of “stories” that includes not just novels and plays and TV shows, but all the half-truth,s symbolism, and falsehoods upon which humans have built all our concept of history, religion, commerce and culture.  He contends that stories are more powerful than armies or flags or gold, and while a case can be made that armies beat fables (though it can also be argued that exporting US culture throughout the globe has contributed to its superpower status as much as runaway military budgets), the rest tracks. A flag is basically a story on a pole, and gold only has power to the extent that everyone agrees to share the fiction that the most valuable substance on earth is an inedible rock that is too soft for use as tools or weapons. 

Schwartzblog almost has to be down with the premise that stories wield such power, since analyzing fiction is its entire raison goddamn d’etre.  But it also tends to hold outright metafiction in contempt, which makes for a mixed reaction to this assertion.  Perhaps it makes sense that, if you can consider a blog as a living entity of sorts, of course it would resent fiction that is about fiction and therefore already analyzing itself.  What creature wouldn’t feel threatened by something that rendered its entire reason for being redundant?  But what I dislike about metafiction more specifically is how it can feel too precious and myopic, if not outright narcissistic, for people whose job is to create stories to create stories that are all about how creating stories is actually the most important job in the world, when you think about it.  Are stories, ultimately, more powerful than kings? I do think so, in that a king cannot actually rule without people buying into stories about divine rights or shiny hats making him more than a man.  But I also think back to the lesson Tywin once taught about how “any man who must say ‘I am the king!’ is no true king.”  Stories that have to insist upon the primacy of storytelling over all other pursuits strike a similarly impotent note with me.



But GOT has always been good about avoiding that kind of self-regard, by framing its preoccupation with storytelling through an overlapping interest in the weight of history, and understanding of that history as “a lie agreed upon.”  As I noted in my “Best Moments” series of posts, many of the best scenes throughout the series have been one character telling a story to another character.  That consistent throughline helps Tyrion’s contention feel more of a piece with what the show has been, rather than a self-serving, last minute swerve into its own navel.  It also doesn’t have to belabor his point in dialogue, because the very fact its own existence acts to reinforce it. I have read more than a few takes in the last month that have specifically marveled at GOT’s ability to resist the inexorable fragmentation of culture that the internet, streaming services and proliferation of niche cable programming are both driving and reflecting.  It is, supposedly, the last true “water-cooler” phenomenon of a show, linking people in a shared language of references and memes that can communicate the nuances of real world politics and relationships in shorthand that crosses many (not all) national, racial and economic divides to an extent that is not supposed to be possible anymore.  There is certainly a form of power in that.

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Pictured: POWER

There is also another layer to Tyrion’s question which I appreciate, more internal to this story, in that he is finally formulating an answer to the riddle Varys posed him many years earlier, about where true power resides.  The Imp seems to have finally come around to what the Spider tried to tell him so long ago, that power resides where men believe it does, and stories are how such beliefs are manipulated.  Without resorting to quoting him directly, it allows Varys’s voice to become, subtly and posthumously, one of the most powerful at this impromptu caucus where the types of reform he would have advocated for are adopted with frankly-laughable haste.     

So this was all great, and I was fully ready to set aside why everyone decided that one disgraced dwarf’s opinion was a solid basis for overturning the only political order any of them have ever known, and just roll with the gist of his argument.  I was still on board as Tyrion wound around to the point that the throne should go to the character with the best story.  Okay, sure, I can buy that even if I don't think this particular assemblage of characters would.  But then he concluded that this obviously meant…Bran?  What???

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No, seriously...WHAT???


Peter Dinklage does his damnedest to sell this nonsense, and you certainly can’t claim that a special affinity for “cripples,bastards and broken things” was not an established part of his character from the beginning, but it still seemed like a joke.  Who has a better story than Bran?  Most definitely Sansa and Arya and Brienne.  Probably Davos and Gendry, maybe Sam and Yara and hell, if we wanted to extend the search parameters to include people who aren’t literally within 10 feet of him at that very moment, probably quite a few more. 

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Bran's story was so rich they just left him out of an entire season smack in the middle of the
 run, as popular  shows so often do with their most important and compelling storylines

I am truly baffled by this.  There were several potential candidates to wear the crown at the end, and it’s possible that none would be completely satisfying, but no other choice could manage the same combination of being at once dramatically unearned and thematically incoherent. Those two things play into each other to a degree, as the shortcomings of Bran’s character arc over the last few years render the payoff to the political themes running under all the chaos and bloodshed of the entire series into gibberish. I am glad that, at the least, the show did not ask us to buy that Westeros converted into a liberal democracy overnight, and the high lords’ laughter at the very notion hung a nice lampshade on that.  But the potent symbolic image of Drogon melting the Iron Throne turns out to not really mean anything; the chair may be different, but the position of king and Small Council appear to still operate in exactly the same manner, with one less (always the most aloof and isolated anyway) kingdom in the mix.  And don’t tell me that Dorne wouldn’t also be looking for independence once it is handed to the North without a fight, and aren’t the Iron Islands already supposed to be free from the throne per Dany’s deal with Yara anyway?

The show wants to have it that King Bran is a step on the path to representative democracy.  But I’m pretty sure what it actually showed me was the foundation of a dystopian police state.  When Tyrion is spinning Bran’s journey as a Horatio Alger-type inspirational fable, it sounds good at first but sours when it gets to “...and became the Three-Eyed Raven.”  What the hell is the Three-Eyed Raven anyway?  We still don’t really know, the nobility of Westeros that this story is supposed to impress know even less about it than we do, and anyway what we do know doesn’t make me feel any better about him.   He’s an omniscient, potentially immortal wizard that can time travel to the past and possess the handicapped and birds.  But it doesn’t feel like I am supposed to be put off that the new king has multiple channels for looking in on any citizen of the realm while they poop or masturbate; if anything this seems to be framed as a happy outcome.

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They skipped the whole democracy part and went right to making a dsytopic panopticon with a literal peasantry toiling under the watchful eye of Big Brother . Yay?

This is a problem that fantasy and scif-fi can frequently run into, but Game Of Thrones had heretofore been very good at avoiding.  The genre conceits that provide a story’s hook can, if not carefully calibrated, take over the narrative to the point where they muddy the themes being explored, or divorce the proceedings from actual human experience so thoroughly as to render everything into arbitrary nonsense.  In general, I prefer that such stories don’t get hung up on the allegorical aspects and just follow the internal logic their made-up mythology dictates.  And okay, I suppose that there is some in-story sense in putting the only person in the middle ages with a fully functional smartphone in their head in charge.  But the shit-ton of magic this puts front and center does more than make thematic implications muddier.  The very straightforward questions about the nature of leadership and what type of people make the most effective rulers have been interrogated so directly from the start that you can't even call it subtext.  That it ultimately settles on “omniscient wizard” is hilarious in how thoroughly it negates any potential thematic relevance to the conclusion, in any direction.

To be clear, this does not upset me because the show didn’t go with my preferred pick for the throne. Yes, Sansa is sitting right there, and fucking obviously she is the best choice.  If she were picked, that would be a pretty happy ending, but even if she were considered and rejected, that would be a statement with actual substance.  Even if someone clearly unfit, like dimbulb Edmure or even freaking Robin Arryn, were chosen, that would be a worse outcome for the nation but it would constitute an actual, cynical point about how political processes elevate inferior men at the expense of better candidates.  I understand why people were angered by Dany going bad last week, but I can defend that as a clear and valid, if bracing, thematic decision to dramatize the thin line between revolutionary glory and tyrannical atrocity.  That may not be something people wanted to hear, but as the man said, at least it’s an ethos.  Beneath all the dragons and speeches in Klingon, with Dany it was easy to make out the frustrated idealist who genuinely wanted to help the less fortunate, but only on her terms.  And the show makes a definitive case that the brittleness of that mindset becomes more and more dangerous as she accumulates power.   


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Never have I seen eyebrows more clearly and dangerously drunk with power
Bran, on the other hand, is so far removed from humanity that making him king constitutes a total recusal from any hint of real-world relevance in the resolution of perhaps the central theme of the entire series.  Throughout the entire run, how a person viewed the relative merits of Stannis vs Tywin vs Dany vs Olenna vs Robb was quite illuminating in terms of what they valued in a political leader, because those people all represented recognizable human personality types.  But whether I am happy or sad or angry or horny about an omniscient wizard ruling Westeros will never have any bearing on my life. Every political campaign for the rest of my life is going to involve some variation of a choice between a more hardened pragmatist and an idealistic academic or hardline ideologue, and questions about the requirements of a wartime leader versus a peacetime steward.  What there will never be is an omniscient warlock in the mix.  I don’t even know how to translate being Team Bran into the real world.

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Write-In Some Aloof Weirdo Who Is Not On The Ballot 2020!!! Wooo-oooo!!!

If the selection had the emotional weight it clearly wants to, if it represented a satisfying dramatic payoff to compensate for the thematic abdication, it would go down a lot easier.  It seems like the show wants us to be happy that one of our Stark heroes, who suffered so much, ended up in charge.  And that would work, if he were still a Stark.  Where I actually do have that sentimental attachment with Jon and Sansa and Arya, I am more inclined to accept some of the silly details that come with their happier-than-expected ever afters.  But the show has been too successful in establishing the explicit inhumanity of the Three-Eyed Raven for that to land with Bran.  Brandon Stark, as a character that we knew and potentially cared about, has been dead and gone for so long that his creepy lack of affect has become a meme unto itself.  Again, the particulars of this are all so esoteric and dependent on ill-defined “rules” of magic that it’s hard to even tell what we are supposed to feel about it.  The most coherent aspect is that we are to accept that not wanting to rule makes one better suited for actually ruling, which I can get behind in theory but is really undercut by the first hint of emotion he has shown in years being a slight smugness about sneaking his way onto the throne.  

One of the oldest and most univerally recognized tropes of weak writing is the deus ex machina, where the characters can’t resolve the story’s conflict themselves, and so a god or king appears out of nowhere to use their unchecked powers to dictate a happy ending that would otherwise be impossible.  That is not quite what is going on here, but it touches upon the same vein of dissatisfaction when the ultimate solution to the central problem of the story hinges on a character that has been sitting on the outside of that story looking in for several years.  On a purely dramatic level, there is just not much there there.  


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Thisi s 60% of his screentime in the last 4 years

On a brighter note, the issues with Bran The Broken are sequestered in the extended coda section.  I am extra baffled by the fumbling of the political question right at the goal line, because the show really nailed much of the more difficult maneuvers for this finale to still mostly work.  It strikes just the right, tricky mixture of closure and ambiguity, and manages to keep its focus looking forward rather than back.  The first 30 minutes are fantastically rendered falling action after last week’s brutal climax, overflowing with incredible imagery and performances: Tyrion making his own long (long, long) walk of shame to the Red Keep, Jon making his way through the Dothraki and Unsullied, Jaime and Cersei’s bodies lying crushed beneath the dragonskull, Drogon’s wings spreading out behind Darth Dany or his rising from beneath a bank of snow and ash.  Dinklage was more engaged than he had been in years, and Clarke and Harington never better as Danaerys Stormborn, and the narrative proper, reached their inevitably tragic end.

I am very pleasantly surprised that the incredibly complex web of plotlines surrounding the wars for the kingdoms of Westeros all reach what I consider satisfying culminations with the defeats of the Night King, Cersei and now Dany.  There were really no loose ends left over once the last dragon(s) fly off to the east, even if some of the nuts and bolts of the plotting could have used some tightening up on the home stretch.  Whether the Unsullied immediately executed Jon and Tyrion, or left them to rule a land they no longer had any interest in occupying didn’t seem to change much about the journey they had taken, the decisions it led them to and multiple dire fates the kingdoms narrowly avoided because of them (and a hundred other allies that made similarly integral choices and were either rewarded or slaughtered for their trouble).  Jon had to make one more devastating choice of duty over love and Tyrion’s horrendously troubled relationship with his family was closed off for good.  Even Arya’s last beat warning Jon would have been a fine capper for her journey; having her “know a killer when she sees one” is a quieter way of reflecting how much her years looking death in all its many faces have shaped her, while allowing her to continue to back away from being No One after last week’s step back from being fully consumed by vengeance and murder. If it had come to it, I could have filled in the blanks from there and been quite satisfied that the overarching story was complete. 

Things do not stop with Dany’s death, of course and I do have that one giant, glaring objection to the beginning of the new story that commences after the time jump.  But the fallout of that decision is surprisingly contained. The resolutions for the other characters all feel right, and as a nice benefit they all pretty much work just as well if you were to pull Bran out and put any other person on the throne.  It would have been nice for Sansa to rule all the kingdoms, but she is still a queen and got the really important one, so the difference in degree doesn’t fundamentally change the emotional impact.  The Small Council positions would probably be about the same under her or King Edmure or King Prince Of Dorne (Zero-eth Of His Name), and it’s not like those guys would have been in a position to launch a wintertime invasion of the North to stop it from seceding even if they wanted to.  Bronn becoming one of the most powerful men in the country is certainly better than the character deserves, but I think his presence on the Small Council serves as an important indicator that the elevation of nice folks like Brienne and Davos and Sam has not and will not entirely scrubbed the grubby business of ruling of all scoundrels and cutthroats and schemers, any more than it did when Ned Stark arrived in the capital.  The Unsullied heading to Naath is even a fine grace note, despite my never really warming to Grey Worm and Missandei as characters.



In my post on the premiere, I cited concern that final seasons and episodes tend to be so backward-looking.  This ties into the same sense of own-fart-smelling vanity that I talked about resenting in metafiction before.  No, they can’t resist a callback to Tyrion’s mysterious brothel joke from the first season, and the final shot does mirror the opening sequence (not too overtly, thankfully).  And the whole “Sam presents a book about the show, called A Song Of Ice And Fire, get it” thing is a touch cutesy, but somewhat redeemed by the gag of Tyrion being omitted entirely, feeling the downside of his own arguments about how stories can be used to elevate some at the expense of both others and a strict fidelity to the truth.  But overall, I am quite pleased with how focused the epilogue is on looking toward the future rather than back at the beginning, and emphasizing the changes that the story has wrought on these characters and their world, rather than whatever surface-level symmetry with its opening the writers and directors could impose.  There is still a Small Council and a king, but they could not be more different than under Robert Baratheon.  There is a Queen in the North.  Ghost is missing an ear.  Jon returns to the Wall, but he is likely not coming back from the True North now that he has found a new people that accept him and don’t want to murder him (anymore).  Most significantly, both he and Arya end things moving outward, into the unknown, rather than facing backward and inward, marveling at the show’s own achievements on its behalf. 



I never needed the show to marvel at itself.  I’ve been here doing it for years.








This seems like the perfect place to segue to a “Stay Tuned, on Schwartzblog, for…” promo for what comes next in this space.  But I really don’t know. This page was only created in the first place because the website that originally sponsored the recap series shut down abruptly during a season, and I didn’t want to abandon the effort midstream.  I dabble in other topics, but GOT was really the animating purpose and now that it is finished I don’t see an obvious successor to that role.  I am pondering a big old MCU retrospective now that ENDGAME has put a capper on an era there, but I can’t say how long or what form it will take exactly, and it will certainly not feel like a timely response whenever it materializes.  I’m open to suggestions of anything else I should take a look at.  In any case, thanks for listening to me yap about this show at such exhausting length.
  

Prophesies:   


While overall, my prophesies were an abject failure, Brienne’s writing Jaime's entry in the Book Of Brothers is doubly satisfying for me because it is one of the very few bits that I can legitimately claim to have called before I’d seen anyone else speculate on it.   If I wanted to pick the very smallest of nits, I would have only allowed us to glimpse fragments of the entry she wrote on Jaime, rather than the whole thing (the last “died defending his queen” bit for sure).  But it was just about perfect.


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Jon Becomes king, dies defeating Night King, leaving Dany pregnant

Dany Refuses to step down for Jon, thinks better of it after losing more dragons and advisors in the battle at Winterfell, but winds up back on the throne after he dies heroically, with a proper incestuous Targaryen heir on the way.

Cersei Gets to little Robin Arryn and lays a trap at the Eyrie before the survivors of Winterfell can reach it, which is mostly foiled by wariness of Sansa/Arya/Tyrion.  King Jon still feels compelled to offer her a pardon to fight with them for realsies this time.  She can’t help but try to backstab them one last time and Jaime mercy-kills her before Queen Dany can burn her alive.

Bran Dies/leaves human body warging into Drogon as a sacrifice play allowing the living to escape Winterfell.

Sansa/Tyrion – Renew their marriage to rule the North and Westerlands.  

Arya Provides assist to take out Mountain in Cleganebowl.  Hooks up with Gendry but refuses to be tied down as his wife, last seen hitting the road for more merry adventures, but with an ominous note that a Faceless man is trailing her.

Gendry High Lord of the Stormlands.

Sam High Lord of The Reach.

Gilly Lady Of the Reach.

Jaime Appointed/Sentenced to reconstitute the Night’s Watch as new Lord Commander.

Brienne Commander of the Queensguard.

Davos Small Council, Master Of Ships.

Missandei Small Council.

Jorah  killed by Walkers.

Tormund Ruler of new Wildling nation in the Gift.

Yara Ruler Of Iron Islands.

Theon – dies heroically.

Euron dismembered by Mountain.

The Hound/Mountain – killed together in Cleganebowl.

Drogon - dies in battles with Night King.

Rhaegal – dies  in battles with Night King.

Grey Worm – killed by Walkers.

Varys killed in Cersei’s trap.

Melisandre killed by Varys.

Robin Arryn – killed in Cersei’s trap.

Yohn Royce – Lord of the Vale.

Berric Dondarrion – killed by Walkers.

Edd – killed by Walkers.

Qyburn killed by Mountain.

Bronn refuses to kill Jaime/Tyrion, gets a castle.

Lyanna Mormont – Rules Bear Island.

Podrick  killed by Walkers.

Ghost - killed by Walkers


Series Morghulis:  

Mycah, Lady, Jory Cassell, Viserys Targaryen, Robert Baratheon, Syrio Forel, Septa Mordane, Mago, Eddard “Ned” Stark, Qotho, Khal Drogo, Mirri Maz Duur, Maester Cressen, Yoren, Lommy,Renly Baratheon, The Tickler, Ser Rodrik Cassel, Mathos Seaworth, Qorin Half-Hand, Pryat Pree, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, Maester Luwin, Craster, Jeor “Old Bear” Mormont, Master Krazyns, Rickard Karstark, Ros, Orell, Talisa Stark, Catelyn Stark, Robb Stark, Grey Wind, Polliver, Joffrey Baratheon, Dontoss Hollard, Locke, Kal Tanner, Rast, Rorge, Lysa Arryn, Oberyn “the Red Viper” Martell, Pyp, Grenn, Ygritte, Jojen Reed, Shae, Tywin Lannister, Mance Rayder, Mossador, Ser Janos Slynt, Ser Barristan Selmy, Maester Aemon Targaryen, the Lord Of Bones, Shireen Baratheon, Hizdahr zo Loraq, Selyse Baratheon, Stannis Baratheon, Myranda, Meryn Trant, Myrcella Baratheon, Areo Hotah, Doran Martell, Trystane Martell, Roose Bolton, Walda Bolton, Balon Greyjoy, Bowen Marsh, Othell Yarwyck, Alliser Thorne, Olly, Shaggy Dog, Osha, Khal Moro, Summer, Leaf the Child of the Forest, the Three-Eyed Raven, Hodor, Septon Ray, The Blackfish, Lady Crane, the Waif, Rickon Stark, Smalljon Umber, Wun Wun Dar Wun, Ramsay Bolton, Grandmaester Pycelle, Lancel Lannister, Kevan Lannister, Mace Tyrell, Margaery Tyrell, Loras “the Knight Of Flowers” Tyrell, the High Sparrow, Tommen Baratheon, Walder Rivers, Lothar Frey, Walder Frey, Septa Unella, Obara Sand, Nymeria Sand, Tyene Sand, Ellaria Sand, Olenna “Queen Of Thorns” Tyrell, Randyll Tarly, Dickon Tarly, Thoros of Myr, Viserion, Benjen Stark, Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, Ned Umber, Edd Tollett, Lyanna Mormont, Berric “Lightning Lord” Dondarrion, Alys Karstark, Theon Greyjoy, Jorah Mormont, Melisandre, (Viserion), (The Night King), Rhaegal, Missandei of Naath, Varys “the Spider”, Captain Harry Strickland, Euron Greyjoy, Qyburn, Sandor “the Hound” Clegane, Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, Jaime “the Kingslayer” Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Danaerys “Stormborn, Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons, Breaker Of Chains, The Unburnt” Targaryen.