game of thrones season four: two swords a wedding and lots of funerals

Halfway there. Well, I suppose a bit more than halfway there since S8 isn’t finished yet and I’m blogging it as I go. Anyway I have watched a lot of Game of Thrones in the last fortnight. I’ve also read a lot of secondary material and listened to a lot of podcasts because once you start going down this rabbit hole it’s easy to pursue it endlessly. And I’m aware I’ve made a number of non-trivial criticisms of the show on a number of levels, but I do want to take a step back and acknowledge what a remarkable achievement both it and the books that underlie it represent. Like the Lord of the Rings (and I know comparing popular fantasy series to Lord of the Rings is kind of an unbelievable cliché) it has a tremendous weight of history behind it to the extent that it’s almost possible to forget that this is just something one guy made up. And easy-stroke-fashionable as it is to make jokes about how very very long Martin is taking to get the series finished, the truth is that there is a rich tradition of this kind of worldbuilding in fantasy and I’m sort of glad it exists. Because sometimes it’s nice to pick up a book and know that the person who wrote it has spent literally decades crafting the world in which it’s set in meticulous detail. I mean right now I’m listening to a series of videos about everything that happened with Rhaegar Targaryen, Lyanna Stark and the Tourney at Harrenhall. This is a set of characters and events that happened long before TV show starts and are barely mentioned in it, but people have made literally dozens of hours of videos speculating about their causes and consequences. It’s genuinely a remarkable accomplishment.

Anyway, the show itself.

Perhaps ironically for something with such a reputation for its endless spiral towards chaos and despair, the overwhelming feeling I took away from Season 4 is that it’s the closest that Westeros gets to actually being … kind of fine? The Battle of Five Kings is basically over, Stannis has gone north to fight beyond the wall, Tywin Lannister has come back to King’s Landing and is taking Joffrey firmly in hand, which makes the boy-king himself far less of a menace and once he’s choked to death on a somewhat pointlessly sadistic poison at what I understand fans call the “purple wedding” Tommen takes over and shows every sign that he’ll be a perfectly reasonable king.

Like my S3 recap, I’m also going to take a few opportunities to randomly segue into S8 discussion, speculation, and meta-commentary because I have absolutely zero self-discipline, and also because this was always supposed to be a “watching early seasons while also watching S8” series, rather than a set of standalone recaps.

Anyway the point about which I wanted to segue this time was the question of “good kings”. One of the weird things about worldbuilding that comes up repeatedly in Game of Thrones the TV series (and also in the novel series, but since they’ve got more room for nuance and discussion I think it’s less of an issue) is that it is on the one hand very clear-eyed about the structural flaws of feudalism while also being weirdly fixated on the idea of “good kings”. This leads to some very strange divisions in the fandom where some people are fairly certain that it has to end with one or other prominent character on the throne and Ruling Wisely (which would be especially ironic since Martin so regularly talks about his objections to that characterisation of Aragorn’s rule in LotR) while others insist equally fervently that the only satisfying ending will be one in which feudalism is entirely abolished in the setting (which would be equally ironic given how committed the show has otherwise been to a historically realistic view of a high medieval society and particularly odd given how little interest the series has shown in either any alternative theories of government or even really the lives of people who aren’t born nobility).

If there was an interpretation of monarchy that I thought was roughly consistent with its portrayal on Game of Thrones (and I think this is undermined in places, mostly in the places where people talk about how brilliant and just Daenerys will be as a ruler—in the face of basically all the evidence) it would be that there aren’t really any good kings but there are plenty of bad kings. After Joffrey’s death, Tywin Lannister gives the newly elevated king Tommen a long—well I was going to say speech but it’s really more a socratic dialogue—about kingship which ends with the conclusion that the most important virtue for a king is wisdom, but that wisdom means listening to people who know more than you do. And leaving aside for a moment the fact that he’s being deeply self-serving here (since he is basically a king’s advisor) and the fact that monarchy still has some deep-seated flaws (most notably the flaw that a king who doesn’t want to listen to people who know more than he does doesn’t have to), it’s actually a pretty damned good piece of advice for anybody in a leadership position.

All of which is to say that taking a step back and putting aside the instinctive yay Stark/boo Lannister bias that the audience has been lulled into by the viewpoint characters, Tommen ruling the seven kingdoms closely advised by Tywin Lannister and Margaery Tyrell is actually a pretty good outcome. Is it as good as the kingdom miraculously transforming overnight into a fully realised 21st century representative democracy? Of course not, but that isn’t a realistic outcome. Getting from feudalism to democracy takes centuries, can easily take a left turn into theocracy or totalitarianism, isn’t even necessarily the same thing as becoming a more just society (Athens, after all, was one of the purest and most direct democracies that ever existed, but they still also owned a whole lot of slaves and their women had less rights than women in Sparta, which wasn’t democratic at all) and Westeros has shown no indication of having anything resembling that kind of social movement. But it is better than the kingdom being ruled by Aerys Targaryen, Joffrey or even Robert. Hell, I’d even argue that the Seven Kingdoms would be way better off under Tommen guided by sensible advisers than under Daenerys or Jon Snow. Mah boi Stannis would be fine as well, of course, but he’s three thousand miles north right now.

Looking back, I’m genuinely not sure to what extent this interpretation is supposed to be supported by the actual show. Maybe I’m just giving undue weight to the fact that Charles Dance is tremendously charismatic, but right now I can’t help but feel that everything would have been absolutely fine if Tyrion hadn’t thrown a tantrum and murdered his father, who was clearly the only person holding everything together.

Like with series three, there are a lot of different threads to talk about here, and we’ve well and truly reached the point where they’ve stopped interacting. One of the things that I was struck by on rewatching season one and to some extent season two was that even though there were lots of different characters doing lots of different things in lots of different places, their stories all overlapped with each other either thematically or causally—right down to Ned’s falling out with Robert over what to do about Daenerys or Catelyn’s journey to the Vale with Tyrion having repercussions in King’s Landing and at Winterfell. We’re well past that now—Dany’s in Meereen doing Meereen things, Brienne is wandering the countryside looking for Arya and Sansa, Sansa is in the Vale with Littlefinger and Arya is wandering around with the Hound (she does meet Brienne briefly but then doesn’t want to travel with her, making Brienne’s journey seem doubly pointless), and Jon Snow is at the wall fighting Mance Rayder’s army.

And, like with series three, I’m going to rattle through some of these plotlines very fast.

Brienne: She’s still great, but she still isn’t really doing much. Once Jaime is delivered to King’s Landing virtually no event of this or any other series would go differently without her. In a sense the scene where she gets knighted in S8E2 is indicative of this. It’s a great feel-good moment, but it doesn’t affect anybody else, it doesn’t impact the battle against the Night King, or Cersei, or the aftermath. Worse it raises thematic complications that the show is ill-equipped to address in the time left—can women be knights now? Is that a thing? Will it continue to be a thing once the wars are over? Are they going to change the succession laws as well? How will all the eldest sons with older sisters feel about that? Will more conventionally feminine women feel that their status is threatened by a culture that is suddenly telling them they should have spent their lives practising swordplay instead of needlework? I don’t expect the show to address any of this.

Arya: She’s also still great, and she gets some good character development and ups her kill count, but her whole arc is about going to Braavos to become a faceless man, and it’s taken us two full seasons (which was two full years when the show originally launched) for her to get from King’s Landing to the Vale where she can finally get on a damned ship. And I know she has character growth to do on the journey but hot damn it’s slow paced.

Sansa and Littlefinger: I really like Sansa’s arc, and it’s good to see her getting better at doing politics and moving from being a frightened child to a seasoned player-of-the-game. In retrospect, Littlefinger seems a bit … convenient. The “Chaos is a Ladder” speech in season three is cool, but we discover in this series that he was basically responsible for everything. I can give him a pass on poisoning Joffrey because, fair enough, his one big defining feature is that he’s got this creepy stalkerish obsession with Catelyn Stark and it’s reasonable to want revenge for her murder, although does he really think that Joffrey was responsible for that rather than Tywin? But we also find out that he was responsible for the murder of Jon Arryn and for sparking the whole Stark-Lannister war and … again it’s possible that this is all just elaborate revenge for the way he feels the great houses have mistreated him down the years, but it’s all very … very motiveless malignancy. Again and again I come back to the word “convenient”. He keeps deliberately sowing chaos and confusion, for motives that don’t seem clear even to himself, and the net result is mostly just to keep the arc of the story going in the direction it needs to go to get to the right ending. I feel like there might be a point being made here but I don’t know precisely what it is. The series often makes a big thing about how arbitrary everything is, and nobody embodies that arbitrariness more than Littlefinger. He’s a cypher who does … stuff. His one big political success is that he becomes de facto Lord of the Vale, but he achieves that by marrying Lyssa Arryn who … has wanted to marry him literally her whole life? I mean yes he needed Jon Arryn out of the way, but he didn’t need to pointlessly lure Ned Stark south. And maybe his plan was to get Ned death-by-politics’d so he could marry Catelyn but that was an awfully convoluted way to go about it and did not turn out well for him.

The stuff in King’s Landing, as I’ve said above, feels surprisingly … fine. At least until Tywin dies. Basically the only real problem left in the south is Cersei who, despite being played magnificently by Lena Headey, still comes across as a bit sulky and petulant. I read an interesting article that I didn’t especially agree with from a columnist who felt that TV!Cersei was much less interesting than Book!Cersei because Book!Cersei is cold, ruthless and motivated by a desire for power in much the same way as the men in the series while TV!Cersei is motivated by a much more cliched and stereotypical “love for her children”. I honestly don’t feel she comes across that well in either medium, but now I’ve gone down the everything-would-be-fine-if-they’d-listened-to-Tywin path I’m finding her particularly difficult. I think part of the problem I’m having is that a lot of Cersei’s motivation in both media can be traced back to a prophecy she heard from Maggy the Frog (or just Maggy on the TV show—not that she’s an actual frog in the books but it is a different character). In particular, there’s a line in that prophecy that runs “Queen you shall be… until there comes another, younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all that you hold dear”. It’s the “younger and more beautiful” clause that particularly causes me problems because it means that even if Cersei is actually a totally calculating political animal her motivation is still basically that she feels threatened by women who are younger and more attractive than she is.

And okay, maybe this is a deliberate subversion of what is otherwise a sexist trope. Cersei, like the actual wicked queen in Snow White, feels threatened by younger, prettier women, but it’s not because she’s insecure about her youth or beauty, it’s because of a literal prophecy that somebody younger and more beautiful than her will be her downfall. Presumably if the prophecy had been about somebody with red hair she’d be really wary of gingers. It’s just that I’m not sure having her play into a sexist stereotype for an unexpected reason really undoes the fact that she’s still kind of playing into a sexist stereotype. I suspect I’ll have more to say about this when I recap season five.

On the subject of subverting tropes, Dany’s breaker-of-chains arc continues in this season and slightly addresses some of the issues I had with it last season. The first episode more or less opens with Grey Worm sneaking into Meereen, giving a group of huddled slaves a sack of weapons and a speech about how if they want freedom they have to take it for themselves. Which is all a bit … steps forward steps back, I think? Like it’s good that it acknowledges the agency and humanity of the slaves more, but it’s also a bit lip-servicey and seems unwilling to address Dany’s own hypocrisy. Throughout this series she keeps insisting that the people of Meereen freed themselves but … well … she’s still queen, isn’t she? And to quote the anarcho-syndicalist peasant from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I know I didn’t vote for her. Yet people still keep calling her Mhysa and Breaker of Chains and making it super damned clear that whatever she says she’s definitely the one responsible for the new freedoms enjoyed by the people of Slaver’s Bay.

A core theme of Game of Thrones (and A Song of Ice and Fire) is that—to quote Hamilton—winning is easy, khaleesi, governing’s harder. Throughout the series we see people who are good at winning wars being bad at running kingdoms, starting with Robert Baratheon in season one, but also arguably including the entire Targaryen dynasty as outlined in Fire and Blood the tie-in history book that GRRM recently put out. Aside time: this is why I’m a bit worried about the limited run-time remaining to the series, a lot of fans seem to insist that there’s only a couple of plot points left to wrap up and three extra-long episodes are plenty of time to do it in, but that seems to miss the important point that a huge central theme of the series has been that it doesn’t actually matter what happens in the epic battle, it matters what happens in the months and years after it finishes. We’ve spent nearly two hours with people sitting in Winterfell and are about to spend an hour and a half on a single battle, that leaves three—admittedly feature-length—episodes in which to not only decide the outcome of the final confrontations but also to settle some of the outstanding questions from the backstory (what’s going on with the Lord of Light anyway? Who is the Night King and why does it matter? What’s this Prince Who Was Promised people keep chatting about) and set up our expectations for the future. Which is a big ask.

Anyway, I was digressing. The problem here is that Dany’s conquest of Meereen seems to be a specific instance of the more generic “winning easy/governing hard” theme of the series, rather than one that engages with the unique ways in which governing a culturally foreign city whose system of government you haven’t even bothered to think about and whose entire economic basis you’ve just kicked over is an order of magnitude more complicated than governing a feudal kingdom that your family ruled for three hundred years already and only stopped ruling a couple of decades ago. There’s a bit early in the series where she says something like “how can I rule seven kingdoms if I can’t even rule Slaver’s Bay” and the show seems to consider this a reasonable question, but actually ruling Slaver’s Bay should be much harder than ruling the Seven Kingdoms, because while it’s smaller she’s trying to make much larger changes to it. One of the videos in the series about Robert’s Rebellion that I was discussing earlier points out that when Robert Baratheon overthrows the Targaryens surprisingly little changes—even the Small Council remains largely the same except for Jon Arryn becoming Hand of the King. Otherwise all the ruling houses of all the constituent Kingdoms remain the same, and everything carries on very much as it was. Dany’s planned conquest of Westeros was always—for all the “break the wheel” talk—going to be similar. New arse on the throne, same hands on the reins. In Meereen, though, she’s trying to install a monarchy in a city that previously … and actually there’s really very little information about “previously”. Even the normally very detailed wikis (even the book ones rather than the TV ones) are kind of silent about how the government of Meereen actually worked prior to Daenerys showing up, there are references to rule by the “great masters” who were from “old slaving families” but … well … how did they actually run the city? What were their laws? Their courts? Now Dany’s taken over she seems to be micro-managing everything personally and that can’t always have been the system, can it?

Throughout the series we have shots of Daenerys sitting in the great pyramid of Meereen holding court on a throne atop a steep staircase, and I keep finding myself shouting whose throne was that in the first place? The wikis suggest that Meereen hasn’t had a king in a thousand years so, well, I guess it might go back to the old Ghiscari Empire? But then how is it still a functional government building? How is she legislating? How is she communicating her decrees to the people?

There’s a bit towards the end of the series which I think is supposed to address some of the complexities of freeing what was once a slave city when an elderly freed slave comes to Daenerys and asks to be permitted to sell himself back to his old master because he’d been in a relatively high-status position and now had nothing else to do and no way to actually survive. Which I liked, but was a little bothered by because at no point did the show pause to acknowledge that the arrangement he was asking for was exactly the arrangement Dany has with Missandei and the Unsullied. Barristan Selmy warns her that allowing such a thing will permit slavery to return by the back door, but, well, in my never especially humble opinion, that ship sailed the moment she bought a slave army, “freed” the soldiers, then continued to use them as an army.

But I talked a lot about Daenerys last time, so I think I’m going to leave her arc there for now. I do think they handled things a bit better in S4 than S3 (not that I am in any position to be making that kind of judgement) but as is so often the case when rewatching the series, a lot of my experience is coloured by the knowledge that Meereen doesn’t really matter in the context of the show. The moment Dany and her advisors leave it, it just slips away into backstory and all our focus moves to events in Westeros. And yes, the Night King is a big deal, but when you think about it’s a bit creepy how little the characters who have just been in Essos think about the hundreds of thousands of people they left behind, and how willing they are to frame the zombie army, which as far as we can tell is only a threat to the continent where all the white people live as threatening to “erase the world” and “destroy humanity”. I mean maybe they’d spread, but we’ve seen no evidence of so much as a single white-walker related casualty on the other side of the Narrow Sea.

The other person I said a lot about last time was Stannis Baratheon, so this time I’ll say a bit less about him specifically and fold his arc into a broader discussion of Jon Snow, the Wildlings and the North. Especially because I’ve hardly touched on it up to this point.

We’re four seasons in now and finally stuff is happening with the North plot. Bran gets to the Big Spooky Tree in this season before promptly vanishing for the whole of season five (when something like that happens I tend to assume that the actor had exams, but I have no idea if that’s actually the case here—it’s entirely possible that there was just too much other stuff to fit in). Ygritte remains surprisingly relevant given that she and Jon barely interact, and we get the first and (arguably) the best of the Big Battles In the North when Mance Rayder’s army finally busts through the wall and attacks Castle Black. It’s possible that the final battle at Winterfell (which aired last night but which I still haven’t watched yet) will be better but honestly I kind of doubt it—what makes the Battle For Castle Black in season four so good is that there are real personal stakes all over the place. Jon has spent time with the Wildlings, so we know what’s going on from their perspective as well as that of the Night’s Watch, and pretty much all of the tension comes from the fact that Jon is fighting against somebody he loves and alongside people who hate him. By contrast, the coming battle at Winterfell is just between Everybody In the Show and A Bunch of Zombies.

Season Four is also where the “guys, I’m beginning to suspect Jon Snow is just a completely generic fantasy protagonist” thing starts to really kick into high gear. Everybody he meets either has a profound respect for him or a hatred born of jealousy, he’s amazing at pretty much everything (unless he’s being Too Darned Honourable or being afflicted by Plot Necessitated Incompetence), and spends all his time looking serious and noble. It is good to see him growing into a leadership role at Castle Black but there’s a bit where the battle in the courtyard is going really badly and Jon is basically all like “hold my beer” to Genn, and then he goes down and … I mean it’s not quite framed as him turning the tide of the battle single handed but it’s also not not framed that way.

In retrospect, Mance Rayder and his army feel a bit … nothingburgery? A really big deal is made of the fact that he has a hundred thousand men while the Night’s Watch has less than a hundred. And while I’m really impressed at how good a job the show does of showing the Watch using the Wall and their fortifications as an effective force multiplier (I particularly like that they show that there are other siege defences built in and they aren’t just relying on the wall being really big), the fact that they’re outnumbered literally a thousand to one makes it all seem a bit convenient that they basically win. There’s some talk about how the initial attack was just Mance testing their defences, and I do see that you don’t necessarily want to send your entire army to scale a vast wall of ice with soldiers at the top of it, but … well … he knows that the wall is mostly unmanned, why is he even trying to attack Castle Black head on at all in that case? His stated goal is to get his people south of the wall in time for winter and you’d think that the fastest way to do that would be to take them somewhere that wasn’t the single most fortified point along its entire length.

Then Stannis shows up, and last I checked he had four thousand men. Which yes is more than the Watch by a factor of forty but is also less than Mance Rayder by a factor of twenty-five. And they somehow manage to catch the Wildlings completely by surprise and rout all hundred thousand of them despite still being massively outnumbered and also fighting in arctic conditions which they aren’t at all used to. And then that’s the wildlings kind of … dealt with? And I appreciate that Mance Rayder is kind of a secondary threat, and that there’s a certain amount of cleanup afterwards because it’s not clear what the appropriate thing to do with the wildling survivors is, but again the consequences of this get glossed over quite a lot. I mean yes, Jon Snow’s decision to let them settle south of the wall gets him literally murdered, but firstly he gets resurrected immediately afterwards and secondly that decision is very much framed as the people who kill him being bad and short sighted, rather than having legitimate concerns about letting a group of people some of whom definitely are mass-murdering lunatics settle on land that is presumably already being used by somebody else.

Sidebar again: this is always the problem with using fantasy situations as analogues for real-world situations. Some of the left-leaning podcasts I listen to tend to be quite keen on drawing parallels between Jon Snow’s decision to let the Wildlings through the wall in the face of pushback from his sworn brothers and the current debates about immigration on the southern border in the USA. The problem here, though, is that a lot of problematic racist things that people suggest about immigrants in modern western countries are actually true about the Wildlings. They won’t integrate into Westerosi society (they call themselves the Free Folk and will flat out refuse to submit to any king at all, which is a pretty serious problem in a feudal kingdom), they are actually more prone to violence than the people you’re wanting them to live alongside and it’s not at all clear how a hundred thousand hunter-gatherers are going to support themselves in an agrarian society with strict land rights. Especially not come the winter. Of course if they stayed north of the wall they’d all die and get raised by the Night King but that doesn’t mean that letting them through the wall for the first time in a millennium isn’t going to be an order of magnitude more complicated than any immigration issue that we might face in the real world.

Basically the whole thing with the wildling army, the subsequent question of what to do about the wildling army and everything leading up to Jon’s eventual murder in a season or two’s time winds up feeling a bit pointless in retrospect, because we wind up at Winterfell with everybody teaming up to fight the White Walkers like we were always going to. Pretty much the only visible consequence of the entire three-season-plus arc of Jon ranging north, killing the Halfhand, meeting Ygritte, joining Mance Rayder, betraying Mance Rayder, Stannis defeating Mance Rayder and Jon to some extent defying Stannis over Mance’s execution is that Tormund Giantsbane becomes a recurring comic relief character.

When S8E2 launched I (and several other people) compared it to the Citadel DLC that rounded out the otherwise disappointing ending of Mass Effect 3. Looking back at whole business with the Wildlings, I’m reminded of a different aspect of Mass Effect 3, that being the somewhat controversial mechanic of War Assets.

Like GoTS8, the Mass Effect trilogy built to a conflict against a seemingly unstoppable enemy that posed an existential threat to all life and that couldn’t really be sensibly engaged with by conventional warfare. The problem is, showing how you’d fight a war against such an enemy is kind of a big ask, and so the game sort of handwaved it by tracking an abstract mechanical resource called “War Assets”. Every time you did something that might nominally help with the war effort you got “War Assets”, and the number of War Assets you had ultimately determined what endings you got or had available. But because they were totally abstract, there wasn’t any real sense of connection between the things you were doing and the final outcome, and it didn’t feel like you were building a grand alliance so much as racking up points. And things like the Wildling arc feel the same. Aside from Tormund, there’s no real sense of a strong Wildling presence leading into the final battle (perhaps this will change in the actual episode, although what spoilers I’ve read suggest that it’s very dark and hard to tell what’s going on, so that doesn’t fill me with hope), so it really does feel like Jon spent dozens of episodes wandering around north of the wall and all he really got for it was 35 War Assets and a comedy NPC.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about S4 ahead of S8E3. Oh, except that because I glossed over the King’s Landing stuff I didn’t mention that this is the series where Tyrion gets put on trial for murdering Joffrey, and is so upset when Shae testifies against him that he murders her with his bare hands, and then cries. Again, the show is famous for subverting fantasy tropes, but if there is one trope that absolutely needs to die in a fire right now it’s “man deliberately murders woman he loves and then acts all upset about it.” Just no.

Since the action is heating up there’s a lot less focus on logistics, which means there’s a lot less focus on food. Which is a shame.

Thoughts on S8E3 coming tomorrow.




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