Last Monday, I sat down to watch the first episode of Season Six of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which just so happens to be my favourite TV show at the minute by a long shot. Series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss– despite recent criticism over certain writing decisions – have managed to make many viewers enjoy their adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s (hereafter referred to as the great GRRM) A Song of Ice and Fire. A generous proportion of GoT’s television-only viewers are those who would never consider watching or reading any sort of fantasy before its premiere, so the show has done a fantastic job acting as the introductory phase to fantasy for many fans around the world.
(On another note, my addiction to ASoIaF and GoT is such that I will find it very difficult to stray away from these topics on this blog, so you’ll probably see this sort of stuff coming up in the future relating to the show and the books. I think everyone has that one fandom that they can never get away from.)
Naturally, there will be SPOILERS for everything up to Season Six, Episode One in my review/rant/rambling, so I’m making sure that etiquette is observed.
Here, have a big colourful box-thing that says spoilers on it.
Game of Thrones is no stranger to controversy. This is, after all, the show where the first episode concludes with a ten-year old boy being thrown from a window after witnessing an incestuous encounter between a disgraced knight and his sister. (Incidentally, this is also the point where a friend’s dad decided that the show was for him). So GoT ticks the ‘crippling of children’ box and the ‘incestuous sex’ box pretty early on.
Perhaps the first instance of true controversy, however, comes in Season 4’s Breaker of Chains. In a scene within the Great Sept of Baelor, Ser Jaime Lannister presents himself before his sister and after a brief exchange the pair engage in arguably-not-quite-consensual sex. Naturally, this brought backlash from critics of the show, in which writers were accused of using ‘rape as a plot device’, a view that was staunchly opposed by the show’s cast and crew.
However, the main example of this sort of controversy would be the final scene of Season 5, Episode 6, Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken, an episode which currently holds the lowest Rotten Tomatoes approval rating of any of the episodes of the show, at 58%, well below the 91% approval of Season Four’s The Watchers on the Wall. S5E6 was marred by poor writing in some places, and criticised for poor cinematography during a fight scene that was filmed on site at Seville’s historic Alcazar palace, where filming regulations limited the freedom of the crew severely. However, the issue that was most pressing with Unbowed was the scene that took place on Ramsay Bolton and Sansa Stark’s wedding night, in which Ramsay essentially forces his new wife while emasculated slave Theon Greyjoy looks on in fright, with the camera panning to his face immediately before the cut to black.
The case of rape here cannot be argued. Sansa was an unwilling participant in the events of the scene, as was Theon/Reek. Indeed, it is presented in a not dissimilar way in the books, although Jeyne Poole replaces Sansa in the role of the victim. Unlike some ‘book purists’ I do not criticise Benioff and Weiss for their creative decision to send Sansa to replace Jeyne Poole at Winterfell, from the standpoint of her arc. A year following Alayne Stone and Littlefinger around the Vale would have made for very dull television, even with the inclusion of characters such as Randa Royce, Harrold Hardyng and Ser Lyn Corbray.
However, it is with respect to Sansa’s arc that Unbowed received most of its criticism. Some, like Vanity Fair’s Joanna Hudson, criticised the decision to make the scene about Theon’s emotions, seeing Sansa’s rape – to paraphrase – as a plot device to bring depth to Theon rather than Sansa herself. Others, like Hypable’s Michael Schick, argued that no plot development could be found in Sansa’s rape for any of the characters involved.
I agree to some extent with the latter view. There seemed to be a lack of character development in the Winterfell plot in the following episode, The Gift, wherein Reek, (Reek, it rhymes with freak) seems to have the same attitude towards Ramsay as he did in previous episodes. More notably, Sansa, whom many had named ‘Dark Sansa’ to symbolise her progression from puppet to player sometime at the end of Season 4, seemed to have reverted to a somewhat tormented version of herself.
Some viewers swore never to watch the show again. Viewing figures dropped from 6.24 million for Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken to 5.40 million for The Gift, the lowest since Season 3. On that note, I cannot help but praise The Gift. Despite its shortfalls, it was a fantastic episode, lifting Thrones out of the muddy quagmire it had dug itself with Unbowed, gave well-deserved justice to one character and saw the long-awaited meeting of two fan favourites. All in all, it was just what the show needed after a long, dark week.
But now, on to the present. After watching The Red Woman on Monday, I proceeded to engage in the typical week of Ye Thrones Obsessor, which consists of endless theorising, at least two rewatches of the episode and a close analysis of a bloodstain on the ground at Castle Black that looks sort of like a dragon… cos R+L=J, amirite? This also involves watching a number of other people react to the episode, including a certain reviewer named Ozzy Man Reviews, who is, to put it lightly, mildly humorous.
Ozzy starts off with a recap of the episode that involves a healthy dose of traditional Australian banter, and is followed by a surprisingly in-depth analysis of the episode’s themes. And this week Ozzy decided that The Red Woman is an episode based on returning to your roots.
He’s right. Cersei and Jaime – or Carol and Larry as ‘book purists’ dub them – had an emotional reunion in King’s Landing, concluding with Jaime’s statement that ‘we [the Lannisters] are the only ones who matter’ or something similar. This is almost exactly the same to Jaime’s statement way back in Season 1. Meanwhile, Brienne and Sansa met for a second time, and this time the lady knight was accepted into her lady’s service, in a scene mirroring an interaction between Catelyn and Brienne back in Season 2. Tyrion and Varys collaborated to rule Meereen, similar to their ruling of King’s Landing back in the good old days. Dany returned to the Brothraki in the Great Grass Sea. And Melisandre – the Red Woman of the episode’s title – went back to her roots quite literally, finally taking off her guise to reveal something rather different to what we expected.
But every show has its shitty parts. Game of Thrones has the unholy mess we call Dorne. You can tell how badly it’s been done when you look at the title sequence, where instead of the Water Gardens or Sunspear, the word ‘Dorne’ is simply stated, leading casual visitors to believe that the entire Principality of Dorne is just one palace in the middle of a desert. It’s like calling Winterfell ‘the North.’
After Season 4, Benioff and Weiss likely wanted to return to Dorne after a certain Dornishman’s popularity with viewers became apparent. We’d only been introduced to two Dornish characters at this point, Prince Oberyn and his paramour Ellaria Sand. As Oberyn had received a minor case of head-smashed-in during S4’s The Mountain and the Viper, Ellaria seemed to be a logical character to introduce viewers to the Dornish plot. We had Doran. We had Areo Hotah. No Arianne or Arys Oakheart was mentioned, but everything seemed to be fine. The Dorne plot might not be as interesting as its book counterpart, but fair enough – a story can be salvaged using some of Bronn’s dry wit and a bit of ingenuity with the writing. Benioff and Weiss have made good changes to D&D’s source material, such as the Tywin/Arya scenes in Season 2, and the streamlining of Tyrion’s journey to Meereen.
Sons of the Harpy, the fourth episode of GoT’s fifth season, was panned by book-readers for the death of beloved knight Ser Barristan Selmy, but that was not the only anti-book atrocity committed in this episode.
Enter the Sand
Snakes Fakes. Obara. Nym. Tyene. Three women, all played by talented actresses, who sadly suffered from a bout of terrible writing. I understand that book-Tyene might not have fit the ‘warrior woman’ position, but she was interesting in her own right. Instead we got three interchangeable women, or ‘the hot one’, ‘the spear one’, and ‘the other one’.
We come to the end of Season Five with a bitter taste in our mouths. Dorne has turned into a weird dumping ground to keep Jaime occupied with Myrcella until the time comes for his Riverlands plot in Season Six. Nothing actually happens. Prince Doran sits in his chair, and we await his epic ‘fire and blood’ speech.
In The Red Woman, Prince Doran is sitting in his chair again when he receives grave news of Myrcella’s death. For a moment there, I expected him to give Areo Hotah the order to execute the Sand Fakes. Maybe the ‘fire and blood’ speech? Nope. Instead, Ellaria and Tyene pull their knives and stab both Hotah – a massive man who dies from a tiny dagger to the back – and Prince Doran.
Apparently, ‘weak men will never rule Dorne again.’ We cut to a scene of Trystane being killed on a boat and I cease to care when Nym quips ‘you’re a greedy bitch, you know’, ignoring the fact that Obara has become a kinslayer.
What do we do now, Dorne? Benioff and Weiss expect me to believe that the Yronwoods and the Allyrions and the Daynes are just going to sit around while Ellaria Sand and the Sand Fakes take over the Water Gardens, Sunspear, and everything. I did get the feeling that the writers just wanted to get Dorne out of the way quickly so that we never have to see it again. The only thing I want to see in Dorne is Ser Robert Strong storming the palace, killing Obara during one of her ‘I am Obara Sand. I fight for Dorne. Who do you fight for?’ monologues. That might even make me laugh.
But the worst, worst thing about it is that we are expected to like the Sand Fakes. They’re gutsy female characters who ensure that ‘weak men will never rule Dorne again’.
‘Weak men will never rule Dorne again’. GoT has its share of great female characters who have even acceded to the status of cultural icons. Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains… is a woman. Cersei Lannister, the (former) Queen Regent… is a woman. Brienne of Tarth – though I dislike the way she has become a killing machine – is a woman.
Margaery Tyrell. Sansa and Arya. Catelyn Stark and Ygritte and the Queen of Thorns. Game of Thrones has succeeded time and time again in making likeable, strong female characters. I’m male myself, but Sansa is my favourite Stark, for her pure resilience and shrewdness. The Red Woman made me appreciate the strength of Cersei and Melisandre, and I even enjoyed our first sighting of Daenerys – whom I dislike intensely in the show. So why, why, why in the name of the old gods do we have the Sand Fakes and Faullaria Sand clogging up this list. It’s time the Dornish decide to look at these four women for what they are; mindlessly violent, kinslayers and murderers of children. Or perhaps it’s better that we never see Dorne again.
I suppose, in the end, we wanted the good plot, but we needed the bad pooseh.
Credit for images of Game of Thrones is to HBO.