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Game of Thrones Watch: Freedom’s Just Another Word

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Spoilers for the season three premiere of Game of Thrones below:

The first time I watched my review copy of “Valar Dohaeris” through, I was struck by the lengths it went to update us on what seemed like every storyline and setting in Game of Thrones. There was, if I’m not missing anything: the Night’s Watch beyond the Wall, Jon Snow at Mance Rayder’s camp, Tyrion (and Bronn) in King’s Landing, Davos coming to after the Blackwater, Stannis licking his wounds in Dragonstone with Melisandre, Robb planning to beseige Harrenhal, Tywin taking office as Hand of the King, Joffrey with his new fiancee Margaery, Cersei adjusting to her future daughter-in-law, Sansa plotting an escape with Littlefinger and Dany at sea and seeking an army in Astapor.

It was only after I finished watching that I realized how many plot threads and characters the episode had not gotten to: No Arya; no Bran, Rickon, Osha and Hodor; no Theon; no Winterfell; no Jaime and Brienne.

After two seasons, in other words, there’s Seven Hells of a lot of story to deal with in Game of Thrones. Which means, first, that–the very focused “Blackwater” episode notwithstanding–we’re not likely to get very many traditional TV “episodes” from Game of Thrones, but rather hourlong chunks that incrementally advance up to a dozen plotlines a week.

And, second, we can therefore expect slow going the first couple of episodes. The Lannisters are victorious in King’s Landing, the Starks are unhoused in Winterfell, but the war is not over. So the series is resetting in many ways, introducing new conflicts and next moves. “Valar Dohaeris” is like the first jet-lagged hours of a return trip, but–with its flying dragons, family turmoil and, holy crap, giants!–it promises an impressive journey to come.

Finally, it means I need to set a ground rule in these weekly reviews: I’m not going to write about every character, storyline and cool scene in every episode, because life’s too short. This is a review, not a list. Instead, I’m going to focus what was most interesting to me in a particular episode.

This week, that thing is what I hope will be a big theme of season three: freedom, as an absolute, as a relative term, as an ideal and as a liability.

Dany, when we meet her, is a queen in search of an army, and the way to get one in the part of the world where she comes from is to buy one–literally, in the form of slaves. She’s not keen on the idea, in part, maybe, from the memory of herself being offered up like chattel by her brother Viserys in service of his own royal ambitions. When they get to Astapor, the reailty is even more chilling: the Unsullied are trained efficiently and brutally, proving their detachment and loyalty by killing slave infants.

Dany is repulsed, but I don’t think this is only about morality. It’s also about duty, and her own quest. Dany wants to rule Westeros, which means more than getting an army; it means learning to lead. As her aide Jorah puts it, “You’ll have a true khalesar when you prove yourself strong.” Can you take a shortcut to leadership by buying strength? (A.k.a. the Lannister Way to Make Friends and Influence People.) Does she have any choice? Jorah thinks not; she needs numbers, and soldiers are soldiers, free or slave. (The episode’s title, for what it’s worth, means “All men must serve” in High Valyrian.) “The distinction means something to some people,” she tells him.

It’s a pointed comment if you remember that Jorah was exiled from Westeros for slave-trading. Because Westeros is a free land, right? Well, insofar as a successful soldier can negotiate better terms, maybe. (As Bronn helpfully reminds Tyrion: “I’m a sellsword. I sell my sword.”) But as the episode quickly reminds us, the Kingdoms are full of prostitutes, hostages, and masses of the poor who are little better off than slaves.

(Game of Thrones: A Graphic Refresher)

Westeros is a free land, in other words, where the extent of your freedom is generally determined at birth. And this combination or freedom (in theory, you can achieve and improve your lot) and privilege (in practice, you won’t), makes relationships transactional, even within families. (Tywin to Tyrion: “Jugglers and singers require applause. You are a Lannister.”)

It also seems to have created a lot of resentment among the have-nots, which we’ve gotten glimpses of as the royal family has ventured outside the Red Keep among their hostile subjects. That Margaery has a different way of dealing with the unwashed makes her not just sympathetic but potentially powerful; when she mingles with the poor and orphans and lives to tell the tale, you’d think she had just performed magic. The episode title notwithstanding, “All must serve” is not exactly a slogan the Lannisters live by.

Meanwhile, Jon Snow—speaking of someone whose lot is determined by birth—has managed to get into Mance Rayder’s wildling camp on his deep-cover mission, and discovers that the “savages” have a much different idea of what constitutes a free society. For starters, the idea of kneeling to anyone—even a king or someone you mistakenly believe a king—gets you laughed at. “Stand, boy,” are Rayder’s first words we hear. “We don’t kneel for anyone beyond the Wall.”

One of the things I’m most looking forward to in season three is how well it explores exactly what that means. We’ve already seen, through Osha and Ygritte, that the barbarism that southerners attribute to wildlings also comes with an extreme philosophy of independence: no man (or woman) is the property of another, not just in literal title but in practice.

That may not make a perfect society–and it raises the question of how, in Rayder’s case, one raises and leads an army of free agents. But it offers an interesting vantage on the rest of the series, whose every action is driven by the lust to sit in a pointy chair, so that others may kneel before it.

Trying to earn Rayder’s trust, Jon first says that he fled the Night’s Watch because “I want to be free.” Says Mance, “I don’t think so. I think you want to be a hero.” Implicit in his dismissal is that Jon Snow doesn’t really know what freedom is. This season could be a great opportunity to learn.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* Said it last season, will say it again: I’ve read the books, a few years ago, but these posts are written with the assumption that viewers haven’t. If you’re read the books, please be considerate and don’t discuss any future events that have not transpired in the series. (That said, season three might diverge from the books even more than season two did, so don’t assume anything even if you have read the source material.)

* New city in the credits sequence: Astapor! Eventually we’ll get to the point where there are so many locations, the credits will have to leave some out (or the theme song will need to be extended).

* Much prefer Ciaran Hinds’ far-northern rebel brogue to his deep-southern Foghorn Leghorn drawl in Political Animals.

* I loved the little pause Davos gives while deciding whether admitting which king he really serves will save or cost his life.

* I don’t remember whether the scene of Margaery walking among the poor was presented as in the book (I’m making a point of not going back and comparing as I watch, so as to judge the TV series as a thing in itself). But it did a great job of establishing her as a potentially powerful, destabilizing force while giving us a glimpse of the commoners’ lives. The one off note: Loras’ saying, “Margaery does a great deal of work with the poor back in Highgarden,” which sounds like a modern phrasing.

* “You’re not half as clever as you think you are.” “That still makes me more clever than you.” Oh, Tyrion, I missed you!

15 comments
Ballal Hassan
Ballal Hassan

It's really good time to president Obama stop support Muslims brotherhood and Dr. Morse .. please focus on what Egyptians wants ..needs to rebuild new and modern Egypt with freedom community ..where Mubarak go at same time where mores well go smart way for USA to deal and build a good relationship with real owner of Egypt country yes only Egyptians people

Lucelucy
Lucelucy

I don't think it should count as a spoiler to affirm that no, there's no mention of Margaery's "work with the poor" in the books, nor is that scene anywhere to be found, but I liked it.  She provides a taste of something that is missing in the books - actual kindness as a real quality.  One of the many quarrels I have with the books is the total lack of a place of comfort, as if reality itself can be defined as a place where only thorns grow.  That being said, I'm looking forward to Dame Diana Riggs' Queen of Thorns.  

Like your "freedom" theme - it's something I rail on about from time to time when somebody channels Mel Gibson in Braveheart - as in, we don't need no regulation, we want FREEDOM!  And I try to stick a spoke in the wheel and ask, what kind of freedom to you want?  To say what you mean?  Or to despoil [I don't usually use the term "despoil"] in the river?  What are the gradations of freedom?  So, yes, interesting.

As another reader of the books, I'm very interested in how and where GoT diverges from ASOIAF.  And I don't remember - is this the season where they cut the book in half?  That is, half this year, the next half next?

Ryan Bliss
Ryan Bliss

Major foreshadowing in the pre-show recap...

geoff.clarke
geoff.clarke

James, great review as usual, but I have to take issue with one word in it: "modern". Treating GoT as if it happened in some "past" is giving it a pass for creating a fantasy world filled to the brim with misogyny. I watch and appreciate the show, but I think it's important to acknowledge that there's no inherent reason that an iron-age fantasy world would oppress women. 

Sandy Wells
Sandy Wells

Shari Goldsberry time for some popcorn and a weekend of girl time.

Oriol LM
Oriol LM

wow this very beautiful this scene :O

vrcplou
vrcplou

@Lucelucy I wonder how much of Margaery's work with the poor is altruistic vs. manipulative.  The more the people love and support her, the more power she wields as Queen.  Margaery struck me as fairly scheming and self-serving in Season 2.  Most everyone in King's Landing is capable of kindness (Littlefinger, anyone?) when it suits their ultimate needs.  Although maybe not Cersei... :)

jponiewozik
jponiewozik moderator

@Lucelucy Yes, the plan is to divide A Storm of Swords--though not necessarily exactly in half, I believe.

jponiewozik
jponiewozik moderator

@geoff.clarke Ha, good point that "modern" is not the appropriate term for a story that does not take place in our real-world time frame. My objection here was, obviously, to diction--whether Westeros is literally medieval or not, its language does generally avoid locutions that we would recognize as contemporary. The misogyny of the society is another, very involved question, but I don't think the misogyny of Westeros society is generally presented as anything other than misogyny--I would disagree that depicting a misogynist or sexist society means endorsing that misogyny or sexism. (I assume this is your point, hence "giving it a pass.") 

Lucelucy
Lucelucy

@vrcplou @Lucelucy I don't think one needs to be wholly one or the other to be genuinely kind - or to see the value of kindness.  Margaery struck me as someone who knows where the circumstance of her birth and recent events have placed her, who also knows that Joffrey needs the strength and continued support of Highgarden (giving her some room to move), but that she also needs to wield strength of her own.  So getting the people behind her is a very smart move.  But the way the scene was played, she displayed a genuine kindness.  But we'll see how the writers play it out. 

geoff.clarke
geoff.clarke

@jponiewozik  Certainly a much more involved discussion, and I agree that depicting does not equal endorsing, but when I try to talk to people about the treatment of women in this show I often get responses along the lines of "that's how it was back then" (paraphrasing a hilarious tweet that I forgot to save: "I've invented a fantasy world where gold can talk and trees fly and women are oppressed because that's how it was, OK?"). 

More generally, I've noticed the switch from 90s science fiction (emphasizing equality) to 10s post-apocalyptic/pre-industrial fantasy (where the women, except for maybe the heroine, do the cookin').

cannape
cannape

@geoff.clarke @jponiewozik The gratuitous boobs are objectifying, yes. But that's my only complaint about how women are shown on GoT. Why not expose, rather than hide, the kinds of challenges women have had to face since time immemorial? As a woman, I appreciate the depiction of how women attempt to wield power from outside the patriarchy. It must be done with subtlety and cunning, employing feminine wile, guilt trips, whatever it takes to spur men to action. Just like in our world, where women wielding power still have to tread carefully-- all it takes is half a misstep, and everyone is on her back with knives. Witness Hillary Rodham (Clinton). She needed to take her husband's name to gain acceptance. And once she stepped out of her place, attempting to push a reform agenda (health care), she was torn apart, not for her policies, but for being "a bitch" and worse. Michelle Obama has learned to step very gingerly and in as feminine and motherly and glamorous a way as possible.

Seeing the women GoT overcome stacked odds to still become powerful is wonderfully gratifying. For example, Iii was amazing to watch the scene where the 3 Northmen burst out in laughter at Brienne's gender, and throw sexual insults, only to get beheaded, beheaded, and eviscerated. As my husband said, "It's kind of a woman's show."

Lucelucy
Lucelucy

@geoff.clarke @jponiewozik I actually had people in my writer's group insist that I explain how people can turn into crows and why do they still have their clothes when they come back, as if there is a rational explanation for all of this.  And this is a group that mostly writes sci-fi or fantasy.  LOL!