Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Game of Thrones 5.6: Unbound, Unbent, Unbroken

We have a lot to cover in tonight's post of this week's Game of Thrones episodes, and as you'll see, we cover off the episode in the first bit, and then focus on the final scene that has so many viewers talking. So without any further ado, let's get started.

Nikki: What an episode. In one hour we have discussions about faith, a queen is imprisoned, a turncoat turns... turncoat, Arya finally discovers where the bodies go, Olenna and Cersei show us the importance of commas, and we end on one of the most brutal scenes this show has ever shown... without them actually showing it.

I’m not sure exactly where to start, so I’ll just pop into the middle and go from there. I’m terrible with actually keeping up with casting decisions, so I was thrilled when Adebisi/Mr. Eko showed up as one of Daenerys’s slavers. Though I must admit, I was a little disappointed that he was missing a tiny little hat on a jaunty angle on the side of his head. (Maybe with little dragon wings? I’ll ring the costume designer and get her on that...) And not only is his first act to order the slicing of Tyrion’s throat and capture of Ser Jorah, but he delivers perhaps the greatest line ever on this show: “The dwarf lives until we find a cock merchant.”

If there were Emmys handed out for single lines, this one would be unbeatable.

As we know, Ser Jorah is Daenerys’s previous advisor, and Tyrion is the one we’re hopeful will be the advisor of the future. Together, they become a great team. With a knife at his throat (they’re going to chop off his head, then his penis, and sell it on the black market because apparently dwarf penises have magical properties), Tyrion is somehow able to move past his horror at losing the thing most dear to him and instead explains — quite rationally, I might add — that to do so would be a major mistake. You must take him whole to the cock merchant, and then lop it off so he KNOWS it came from a dwarf. Brilliant. Unless, of course, they actually get to the cock merchant and Adebisi follows through.

But then a better idea comes along, when Tyrion convinces them that Ser Jorah is a great warrior, and if Daenerys has indeed opened the fighting pits in Meereen, then Mr. Eko would have no greater chance at making a ton of cash than to throw Ser Jorah into the pit as a ringer, thereby hustling everyone who bet against the old guy thinking he didn’t stand a chance. Mr. Eko goes for it, and the two advisors are safe... for now.

But let’s rewind a bit to the conversation they were having before this moment: Mormont and Tyrion are chatting, and Tyrion asks Mormont if he’s a cynic or if he actually believes in God. Jorah replies, “Have you ever heard baby dragons singing? It’s hard to be a cynic after that.” Until this discussion, the men have been at each other’s throats. But now Tyrion listens to him — he did, after all, just witness his first dragon — and then he tells Mormont that his father had been a great man. And it’s only when he tells him what a great man he was (past tense) and that the world will never see another one like him, he looks up and realizes that Mormont didn’t even know his father had passed away. First he finds out that he’s got greyscale, and now his father has died? Ser Jorah is having a really bad day.

On that note, however, I must admit that when he sat down next to Tyrion on the log, I kept thinking, “Don’t touch him, don’t touch him” and then later, when Tyrion is standing near the rock and Mormont grabs him to pull him back, I recoiled. Is Mormont just as contagious as the Stone Men? Notice he never actually touches Tyrion’s skin: he only grabs him by the shoulders, which are draped in fabric. But the slavers end up grabbing Mormont and tying up his wrists and no doubt touch his skin a lot. And then they grab Tyrion. How fast could this stuff spread? (Or are we supposed to be thinking like that??)

While Tyrion and Mormont are on their way to see the queen and the fighting pits, Baelish has returned to King’s Landing to see another queen. And, as usual, you just don’t know what side he’s on (though if I had to guess, I don’t think there’s any way he’s turning over Sansa to Cersei... though... could it be worse than the fate he’s left Sansa to in the moment?) What did you think of the scene of those two back together, Chris?

Christopher:  First, let me add my delight to yours at seeing the Tyrion/Jorah road show coming into its own, especially where the news of Jorah’s dead father comes into play. I’m loving the way they’re developing these two. And I’m just as delighted as you are to see
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, aka Simon Adebisi, aka Mister Eko make an unexpected appearance as a pirate-slash-slave trader. I’m actually quite surprised not to have heard of this casting in advance: the show has generally been quite boastful of the talented actors they’ve scored, and given Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s niche appeal to HBO fans and Losties, one would have imagined he’d have been brought in with no little fanfare.

(And I must admit, I had a moment of doubt about whether it was him—the voice is unmistakable, but he’s put on some weight, and he seemed somewhat shorter than he always did on Oz and Lost—which makes me think that Iain Glenn is a tall, tall man).

(Also, I think Tyrion’s line that prefaces Adebisi’s “The dwarf lives ‘til we find a cock merchant” matches it as one of the show’s best lines: “It will be a dwarf-sized cock.” “GUESS. AGAIN.”)

But to return to Cersei and Littlefinger: his entry into King’s Landing is as perfect a contrast to King Tommen’s impotence on the steps of the Sept as could be crafted. We of course know that his brothel has been attacked and (presumably) put out of business, and that he is notorious as a man who has made a significant amount of money in the sex trade. So he’s naturally a target for the newly formed Faith Militant, and we see Lancel’s eagerness in confronting him. But Littlefinger is no Tommen: he’s completely unimpressed by the dirty-robed fanatics who bar his way. “I have urgent business with the Queen Mother,” he says calmly, like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. “Shall I tell her I’ll be delayed?” As always, his armour and weapons are not steel, but his mind: he sees the Faith Militant for what they are, just another group jockeying for power in the game of thrones, even if they don’t have to wit to see it themselves. “Step carefully, Lord Baelish,” Lancel warns. “You’ll find there’s little tolerance for flesh peddlers in the new King’s Landing.”

Littlefinger’s response is one of the most subtly meta- moments we’ve seen on this show: “We both peddle fantasies, Brother Lancel. Mine just happen to be entertaining.” On the face of it, he’s speaking of the illusions his whores and whoremongers sell, that of their clients’ power and desirability—such as which was on pathetic display in episode three, when the High Septon has his religious pantomime played out. But it is also a wonderful little encapsulation of Baelish’s own theatrics. On every level, he peddles fantasies: be they the fantasy of an overflowing treasury he gave King Robert, the dream of power he used to bring the Tyrells into alliance with the Lannisters, his deft misdirection that made Cersei convinced it was Tyrion who poisoned Joffrey, and all of the schemes he is spinning this season: his alliance with the Boltons, his promise to Sansa, and now his suggestion to Cersei that, once the war in the North is settled between Stannis and Roose, he will lead the Vale to victory at Winterfell. All in exchange for being named Warden of the North … which may or may not entail putting Sansa’s head on a spike.

It is this last demand of Cersei’s that throws Littlefinger’s enterprise into question, for whatever his cold calculations, there has always been the underlying suggestion that he desires Sansa as a surrogate for his frustrated love of her mother. But … really, who the hells knows? Baelish’s talent, as he points out to Lancel, is the ability to spin out pleasurable fantasies. Which corresponds to his desires?

I don’t have an answer to your question about what side he’s on, Nikki … I think the Littlefinger we get in the series is something more of an improviser than we get in the novels. GRRM’s Baelish always comes across to me as a chess grandmaster, someone who sees the moves happening twenty turns ahead of anyone else. The Baelish of the series strikes me as someone who plants a whole bunch of seeds and sees what takes root. He simply has too many balls in the air right now (yes, I’m mixing my metaphors) to be that precise—he’s waiting (I think) to see what happens with such conflicts as Stannis v. Roose before making his next moves.

As for Cersei … one of the things I love about her character, both in the novels and in the series, is that she’s an overstated but ultimately inept villain. She imagines herself to be a schemer, but lacks her father’s (or for that matter, Tyrion’s) ability to play the game of thrones coolly. Arming the faith, as we’re starting to see, was mounting a tiger. In her meeting with Littlefinger, we see how deftly he plays her, how easily she allows her emotions and hatreds to guide her judgment.

All of which speaks to the fact that Ellaria Sand had it spot on: if the Sand Snakes had succeeded in killing, hurting, or otherwise harming Myrcella, Cersei would not have hesitated in launching an ill-advised war on Dorne.

What did you think of the southern part of this episode’s story, Nikki?

Nikki: I loved the anticipation of the Sand Snakes, the way Ellaria stood below the palace and gave them their marching orders, the way they chanted, “Unbound, Unbent, Unbroken,” even if the actual scene didn’t quite live up to the promise of these magnificent women. The problem is, they weren’t counting on Jaime Lannister being there. Or Bronn, for that matter.

And neither side was expecting that Myrcella would actually be in love with her betrothed, and refuse to be taken away. Jaime’s there to take her back home to her mother; the Sand Snakes are there to kidnap her and use her as a bargaining chip. Prince Doran, confined to a wheelchair, was watching Myrcella moments earlier and commented to his captain that he’d better remember how to use that axe, for he’ll probably need to use it soon. Where, as you pointed out above, Chris, Cersei rules with her heart and emotions, Doran Martell is more calculated, thinking through everything. It’s no wonder Doran’s captain and his army show up soon after the fighting breaks out; Doran had already anticipated it and had the men watching Myrcella and Trystane as they walked through the garden. Trystane, Doran’s son, seems to have inherited his father’s cunning, for when Jaime and Bronn first approach Myrcella, he looks down and immediately notices the blood stains on their clothing, and knows they’re not actual Martell soldiers.

Finally, a couple that wants to be together... and both families conspire
to tear them apart again.

When the Sand Snakes show up, they fight fiercely, and I loved the action scene, but Martell’s soldiers quickly stop it, taking away Jaime, Bronn, and the Sand Snakes, as well as Ellaria, who was waiting under the palace for her girls to return. 

Meanwhile, over in Braavos, a girl washes a woman and a man and another man and a girl and a man and ... and never actually discovers why she’s washing all of these people. The young surly woman who is often with her continues to be harsh, but I noticed that when she speaks to Arya, she says “you” and not “a girl,” so I’m thinking that despite all her bluster, like Arya she is not yet able to become one of the Faceless Men (if, indeed, she strives to be). When Arya finally asks her to explain her deal, the girl tells her a story that sounds right out of The Brothers Grimm — her mother died, her father remarried, and her stepmother had a baby girl and wanted that baby to become the heir to their fortune, so she tried to poison the girl. The girl went to the Faceless Men, and, as she put it, her father was widowed once again. For the first time since meeting her, Arya looks at her with some respect, a small smile playing on one corner of her mouth... until the girl asks her to decide whether or not that story was true. The smile instantly fades from Arya’s face, and she’s told she’s still not ready.

Later, Jaqen awakens Arya and asks her who she is. I expected her to say, “No one,” but she knows better, and begins to tell her story. Every time she so much as wavers from the truth, Jaqen beats her with a switch he’s holding, and she corrects herself, reverting to the true story. But when she says she hated the Hound, he hits her, and she repeats herself, and gets hit again. We viewers know there was some affection there, and leaving him was as painful as it was satisfying, but while Arya can’t seem to convince Jaqen of any of her lies, she’s certainly convinced herself of one of them.  On the floor, with her mouth bleeding, she tells Jaqen that she’s no longer playing his games. “We never stop playing,” he shoots back.

And then Arya gets a chance to bring peace to someone else. When a girl is brought in, and her father begs for them to just take away her pain — knowing he’s asking for her to be euthanized — Arya steps up and lies convincingly to the little girl, telling her that drinking the poisoned water will actually make her pain go away, and that she’d done the same thing herself. Later, when she’s washing the corpse, Jaqen appears in the doorway and signals for her to follow. He had watched her with the little girl and saw that she was able to convince someone else of a lie, and she pretended to be someone else and did so as if she truly believed it. And so now he deems her ready to see where the corpses really go... and the truth was shocking. Down in the catacombs of the House of Black and White are pillars covered in the faces of the dead — faces that the Faceless Men use to become other people. And he tells her that she’s not ready to become no one, but she’s ready to become someone else. Looking at the pain and misery so many of the characters on this show have endured, becoming someone else almost feels like a luxury. I can’t imagine Arya with a different face, but we’ll see where this storyline takes us next.

Are they following the Arya storyline from the books, Chris? And what did you think of the Tyrell storyline in King’s Landing?

Christopher: For a season where they’ve more or less thrown out the script for almost all the major storylines, Arya’s story is all but identical to the novels—with the one crucial exception being that it is not Jaqen who mentors her. That being said of course, given that the Faceless Men can take on whatever visage they want, there’s no way of knowing for sure that Arya’s guide in the novels isn’t Jaqen. Like you, I’m delighted the series made that minor change, because I really like that actor, and having him return offers a certain structural resonance to the story.

As for the Tyrells … well, first off, it’s great to have the Queen of Thorns back. Lady Olenna’s brusque, tart tongue is once again a wonderful counterpoint to Cersei’s mannered spite. “As for your veiled threats …” Cersei starts to say, only to have Olenna snap “What veil?” As in her exchange with Littlefinger, we begin to see the extent of Cersei’s self-deception, best expressed in her arrogant assertion that “House Lannister has no rival.” Um, Cersei, may I draw your attention to an observation made by Petyr Baelish several episodes ago? Tywin Lannister is dead, Jaime has one hand, Tommen is a soft boy, and the title of Queen Mother means less and less with each passing day.

Yet Cersei can only see what is immediately in front of her nose, which in this case is her hatred for Margaery and her petulant need to cling to power … which she obviously believes she has succeeded in doing. And for the moment, it appears that she is successful, playing her trump card with Loras’ lover and implicating Margaery in his “perversions.” (For the record, this is different from the novel but not dramatically so: in the novel, Cersei concocts a story in which Margaery and her ladies-in-waiting had sex romps with a pair of brothers in the Kingsguard, whom Cersei seduces into testifying against her).

Cersei’s question to Olenna is ironic: “The Lannister-Tyrell alliance brought peace to a war-torn country,” she says, and asks: “Do you really want to see the Seven Kingdoms slide back into warfare?” The question is ironic, because she’s putting the obligation of pragmatism on Olenna, while she herself proceeds from a place of purely personal vengeance. Olenna’s response is to remind Cersei about her father: Tywin was ruthless, cold, and often brutal in his tactics, but was never emotional in his decisions—and it was for that reason, in spite of her own antipathy to him, that Olenna was willing to enter into the alliance to begin with. Whether she’s being cynical or just stupid, Cersei is relying on all the other actors in this drama being unwilling to have conflicts renew, blind to the fact that some, like the Tyrells, probably are; and the fact that others, like Littlefinger or the Sand Snakes, actively want war again. And meanwhile, Cersei has gone and isolated herself from all those who might have been valuable allies.

Which brings us to the heartwrenching conclusion of this episode, and the question of whether the title—“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”—isn’t just the motto of House Martell, but an allusion to all that Sansa has endured since the death of her father. The horror and in many cases the anger of many people when they realized what Littlefinger’s plan for Sansa was bound up in the prospect of her wedding night with Ramsay. The sparse hope many of us had lay in the possibility of a deus ex machina in the form of Brienne or Stannis. 

But it was not to be. And in the days since the episode aired, there has been a great deal of outrage and argument about it. Some have said the scene was vile, yet another example of Game of Thrones using sexual violence as mere plot point, citing the also-controversial scene last season where Jaime rapes Cersei as evidence that this kind of exploitative use of rape is endemic to the series; others are angry with the entire shift in Sansa’s storyline, that it necessarily brought her into Ramsay’s twisted grasp; others are outraged that the scene focuses not on Sansa’s anguish but Theon’s. And some, like the website The Mary Sue, have declared that they want nothing more to do with Game of Thrones.

What are your thoughts, Nikki?

Nikki: Well, as some readers may have surmised, right after the two of us had gone through our first passes, the internet exploded into outrage over that final scene. So in the last two passes, we’ve tried to sum up the rest of the episode more quickly to focus the end of this post on what happens in the final scene.

Like you, I was hoping Brienne would stop it. Or the elderly woman warning Sansa to put a candle in the Broken Tower. “The North remembers,” after all. Or perhaps Theon is faking it, and he would stop things. But if he stabbed Ramsay in the neck in his chambers, how the hell would he and Sansa get out alive?

None of that was to be. Instead, Ramsay goes from being saccharine sweet (and as phony as a three-dollar bill) to turning back into the Ramsay Bolton we all know and hate. He forces Theon — interestingly, he’s allowed to be Theon again, because in this instance, it’s far more painful for him to be Theon, the boy who was Sansa’s childhood friend, than to distance himself and become Reek — to stand in the room and watch as he bends Sansa over her parents’ bed and rapes her on the very furs that used to keep Ned and Catelyn warm at night. The bed she was probably conceived in. She has entered Winterfell with her head held high, with her hair dyed black, declaring to Myranda that she’s not afraid of her. But now the black has been washed out, Littlefinger has abandoned her, and it’s just her, the sadistic Ramsay, and the damaged Theon in a room, where Ramsay takes the first step to break her the way he broke the boy she used to play with as children.

The scene is very carefully filmed. We see Sansa from behind as Ramsay rips her beautiful dress from her. The camera comes back around to her front so we can see the look of terror forming on her face. She is bent over, pushing her face into the furs, her fists gripping the hair, and you hear the sound of Ramsay taking off his own pants, and then the camera pans around again and you see Sansa’s body jerk forward, and her moans of pains turn to screams as the camera focuses itself on Theon’s face. As he shakes and shivers in the corner, his eyes wide with horror, we hear Sansa’s screams and can only imagine the look on Ramsay’s face. Fade to black.

Even the camera acknowledged that what was happening on screen was too horrifying to actually show us. Despite what the article you quoted above stated, I don’t believe this final scene was cutting Sansa out of the picture and showing us Theon’s horror instead; it was saying that what she was going through was so awful they wouldn’t make us watch it. Theon becomes the stand-in viewer, his horror simply mirroring what Sansa was going through. This moment was all about Sansa; we weren’t exactly being sympathetic to poor Theon in this scene, but picturing our dear Sansa, all power being ripped from her.

It’s the most horrific ending of any episode so far. Did I enjoy it? Of course not. Did it horrify me? Yes, it did. Was it meant to? ABSOLUTELY.

And that’s where I’ve been deeply saddened by the vitriol and typical Internet Outrage that has accompanied it. I’m a huge fan of The Mary Sue, which offers a feminist perspective of pop culture and is usually right on the money. And I respect them for actually being calm and measured in their article that stated they will no longer be covering the show because of how upset this scene made them. They weren’t rude or condescending, and in an age where it’s easier to take to Twitter and type “DIE HBO AND GRRM,” I appreciate the way they did it.

However, I respectfully disagree with their position. Seeing a woman raped upset you? Good. It should upset you, because — and I hate to be the bearer of bad news here — women get raped. This is not a fictional thing. In the time you have been reading this piece, several women have been raped. There is a young girl right now being married off to a man four... five... six times her age, and she’s about to have the worst night of her life. And tomorrow it’ll happen again to another. Somewhere in the world another girl is trying to figure out how to get her father or uncle to stop coming into her room at night. Somewhere else a woman is on her way home to her husband and children and is about to be accosted by a stranger. Somewhere else a teenage girl is getting drunk at her first keg party and is having a rufie slipped into her drink. Or a wife is being raped by her abusive husband. A young girl is being raped by her older brother. A girl is being gang-raped as punishment for having shown her family dishonour by being raped in the first place.

THIS SHIT HAPPENS AND IT IS REAL. And if the show had glossed over it, and instead Brienne had suddenly flown into the room accompanied by the sounds of sweeping orchestral music, reaching down to Sansa with one arm declaring that Lady Sansa needs to come with her in the name of Catelyn Stark, it would have been disingenuous, and skirting around a very, very serious topic that needs to be addressed.

Sansa’s rape upset you? Good. But instead of throwing your hands up and saying you will no longer pay attention to a show that honours women in all their magnificent glory on a weekly basis, why don’t you use that outrage in another way: why not direct it at the reality that many non-fictional women are trying to overcome rape? Or that some cultures condone it? THAT should make you angry as hell.

There was nothing gratuitous about this scene. It’s Ramsay Fucking Bolton. What did you think was going to happen — he was going to lay rose petals all over the bed, peel her some grapes, caress her arm gently, be gentle with her, all while whispering sweet nothings in her ear, run her a bath afterwards, and make her breakfast in bed? No. He’s Ramsay Bolton. He’s the worst sadistic fuck in Westeros, worse even than Joffrey.

I think the line in the Mary Sue piece that bothered me the most when I saw it yesterday was where they wrote that “the extent of Theon’s torture at the hands of Ramsay is barely covered in the show.” What?! Are we watching the same series? Because I remember a huge part of season three being devoted to Theon being tied to a wheel (an emblem now used to denote Winterfell in the opening credits), of having screws literally screwed into the bottoms of his feet, of Ramsay threatening to take off his finger, then shaving it off in pieces, of tricking him time and again — in one scene he almost gets away only to discover he’s been travelling in a circle and is back with Ramsay; in another scene women seduce him only for Ramsay to show up and lop off his penis.

You know what, let’s just sit with that one for a second longer. He is literally dismembered by Ramsay, who mocks him by eating a sausage the next morning to make Theon think it’s his penis, but instead Ramsay sends the penis to Lord Greyjoy to show him that his son is really the screw-up he always thought he was. He strips him of appendages, dignity, and then his very sanity. He turns him into a snivelling animal, and keeps him in the dog kennels.

But yeah, let’s just forget all of that and say the show has glossed over Theon’s torture. To say that Sansa’s rape is unforgivable but Theon’s torture was entertainment isn’t feminism, it’s outright hypocrisy.

Sansa’s rape is meant to invoke fury in us, to make us hate Ramsay Bolton more than we already did, to put us more on Sansa’s side than we already were, to want the Boltons to PAY for what they’ve done to the Starks. It’s meant to make us rise up in an angry tide against Ramsay, the same way killing off Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer was not Joss Whedon saying, “The only good lesbian is a dead lesbian,” which is what the Internet Outrage-mongers back then tried to peddle, but instead was him saying, “You should be furious that things like this happen to people who are as special and amazing as Tara.”

I hope this scene made people angry. It made me angry. Angry at a world where things like this happen. Game of Thrones is meant to invoke medieval England, and if you think women had it good back then, then perhaps it is better that you stop writing or talking about this show and instead go read a history book or two. In medieval England — hell, in 2015, I hate to say it — Ramsay just had sex with his wife. At least, that’s what it looks like under the law. You can’t rape your own wife, says the misogynistic laws in place in several countries in our modern world, and in every single country in the medieval one. These are the very laws this scene was written for; with this scene, we are now having discussions about why those laws need to change.

And if watching this scene made one person decide they were going to use a fictional character’s plight to transfer that ire to the real-world horrific reality — which is so, SO much worse than what we saw — then it was worth it. If Brienne had swept in to save Sansa, we wouldn't be having this discussion today, and this discussion is so important. 

OK. I promised I wouldn’t get emotional in my response, and as usual that’s flown right out the window. So I turn it over to you, Chris. I know this scene wasn’t in the book, which is why most people are upset about it (I guess if GRRM had written a rape scene it would magically make it okay?) but I know you have a lot to say about this, too, so the floor is yours, my friend.

Christopher: The final scene of this episode epitomizes something this series has occasionally accomplished, which is to produce a brutal and horrifying work of art. And it also epitomizes the danger and necessity of turning pain, trauma, and the unthinkable into art. When James Joyce was living in Zurich during the First World War, someone asked him if the novel he was working on was an anti-war novel. “The best way to write an anti-war novel,” Joyce replied, “is don’t write a novel about war.” His point, or at least one of his points, was that turning anything, however ugly or horrible, into art aestheticizes it. That is the dangerous element: one risks losing the critical edge of the work with readers or viewers who simply don’t see that there is a critical edge at all, either because they’re thrilled by the aesthetic or, conversely, are so turned off that they simply reject the work wholesale.

Apocalypse Now is one of the most profound anti-war films ever made, and yet the air cavalry’s attack on the village set a new standard for how to do thrilling action sequences, and Robert Duvall’s line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” has gone from being a trenchant comment on the absurdity of war to an unironic cliche of military masculinity.

Or to use an example closer to our subject: I long ago discovered that Lolita is the easiest novel to teach because one third of the class loves it unequivocally, one third hates it with a white-hot intensity, and the remaining third likes it but are totally creeped out by the premise, and this makes them confused. I don’t have to do much lecturing: I just let the class fight about it.

These are dangerous waters, and to be fair, Game of Thrones hasn’t always navigated them well. Last season’s rape scene with Jaime and Cersei is a case in point, and I tend to agree with those who hated it. It was a hamfisted scene, though not nearly as hamfisted as the showrunners’ inane attempts to claim that it depicted consensual sex. It was infuriating, both because the scene itself was terrible, but also because it could have been handled so much more deftly. In the novel, it’s an awkward, hurried sex scene in which the line of consent is blurry—handled precisely that way in the series, it would have been less infuriating and more discomfiting, and would have spawned a far more fruitful series of arguments about lines of consent between sexual partners.

The Sansa scene is entirely different because there’s no question of consent, and no question of partnership. This is rape, and if it takes place in a scene that is beautifully lit and shot, I hardly think that mitigates what takes place. Quite the contrary: for me it called to mind some of the more touching depictions of lovemaking on the show, such as Jon and Ygritte’s subterranean waterfall dalliance. We can easily imagine characters who genuinely love each other in this candlelit setting, which makes the contrast with Sansa and Ramsay (and Theon) that much more horrifying.

The Mary Sue’s principal line is more or less the James Joyce line: just don’t write a storyline about rape. In some respects I am not unsympathetic to this argument, but as you say, Nikki, this is not what Game of Thrones does, and as Alyssa Rosenberg argues, “Game of Thrones has always been a show about rape.” By which she means “that the omnipresence of sexual violence in the world Martin created is the point, not ‘illicitness … tossed in as a little something for the ladies,’ as New York Times critic Ginia Bellafante wrote in her bizarre review of the show when it premiered in 2011.” A Song of Ice and Fire has always been, before anything else, a high fantasy series whose main project is the upending of the romantic conventions of high fantasy, the demythologization of a genre that tends to depict premodern and medieval settings with a nostalgic glow.

Two years ago, when we reviewed episode 3.03 “The Walk of Punishment,” we talked about the way in which Game of Thrones builds the threat of sexual violence into the fabric of Westrosi society, and the way GRRM is in this respect historically accurate. This was the episode in which Jaime lost his hand; it was also the episode in which he manages to save Brienne from getting raped by their captors by telling them she was worth a fortune in ransom. It was also, if you’ll recall, the episode in which Ramsay “rescued” Theon, who was then ridden down by a group of horsemen and himself threatened with rape—until Ramsay again “rescued” him, only to subject him to a far worse fate in the dungeons of the Dreadfort.

That episode was on my mind as I watched the final scene of this one, because what makes it affecting rather than simply horrifying is the way the camera zooms in slowly on Theon’s face as Ramsay rapes his bride. As I said in our review of “The Walk of Punishment,” Jaime’s advice to Brienne that she just lie back and think of Renly when their captors rape her betrays his fundamental misapprehension of rape, seeing it as different from consensual sex in degree rather than in kind; the focus on Theon’s face in this scene does not, as some have charged, make the moment all about him—rather, I would argue that it makes the thematic connection between torture and rape. Rape isn’t about sex, but domination and subjugation, the violent humiliation of a person and breaking them to your will. This scene is horrifying and terribly difficult to watch, but in the end its point isn’t about violence but suffering. A recent review of Mad Max cited an argument made by Anthony Lane in The New Yorker ten years ago. In a negative review of Sin City, Lane observes,

“Nothing is easier than to tumble under the spell of its savage comedy—Marv driving along with the door open, say, holding another guy down so that his head is roughly sanded by the road, or Jackie Boy continuing to chatter with his throat cut. We have, it is clear, reached the lively dead end of a process that was initiated by a fretful Martin Scorsese and inflamed, with less embarrassed glee, by Tarantino: the process of knowing everything about violence and nothing about suffering.”

“Knowing everything about violence and nothing about suffering.” It is here, I would argue, that the worth of this scene lies: there is nothing here to redeem Ramsay, and nothing to titillate. Alfred Hitchcock knew the value of not showing the shocking image but rather the reflection of the shocking image in a character’s reaction shot. Sansa and Theon’s fraught history is writ there on Theon’s face, and we have been subtly prepared for the moment not only by Ramsay’s taunts over the dinner table, making Theon apologize, but in the scene immediately preceding in which Theon is required to describe himself as the ward of Eddard Stark and to speak his real name in order to give the bride away.

As with any such dramatization, one of the dangers is the people who just don’t get it. The Mary Sue, among others, lamented the fact that this scene would churn up, like sludge from a pond’s bottom, all those who say there’s no such thing as marital rape—that Sansa was just performing her wifely duty, and everyone who says otherwise just have to get over themselves. And of course that fear has been vindicated. But as someone who believes that more speech is always preferable to less, however vile much of it may be, I say: good. Let the trolls and troglodytes have their say. At least we’re talking about it.

And on that cheerful note, we bid you adieu for another week. Be good, dear friends, and work hard, and for the love of the Old Gods and New, remember that friends don’t let friends marry Boltons.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men Series Finale: "Person to Person"

Finales. They can make or break how a show continues to be perceived in the public consciousness, long after the show has ended. The Sopranos took fans through one of the deepest journeys of a man’s psyche that has ever been shown on television, but bring up the show to a fan now and the first question they’ll ask you is, “What did you think of that ending?” Your answer will pretty much sum up for the other person whether or not they want to continue discussing it with you. Showrunners know you can never satisfy everyone. If the finale is too open-ended, you’ll be called lazy. If you come down on one side, you’ll estrange all the fans on the other. And I haven’t even begun to talk about the death threats aimed at showrunners through social media.
            Into this fraught territory wades Matthew Weiner with Mad Men. Perhaps the most stylized show I’ve ever seen, this is the series that inspired further antiheroes with dark pasts, that stimulated the gorgeous art direction of Hannibal, that demonstrated fans are interested in period pieces that don’t involve Victorian corsets. The show premiered in the summer of 2007 by setting the first episode in 1959, and eight years later the series ends with a glimpse of a commercial we know was released in 1971. The big question is: how did the penultimate scene — of Don Draper meditating on a cliff side — tie into the commercial that fades us out of the series?
            The obvious answer is that Don Draper finally finds peace, and, in typical Don Draper fashion, monetizes it. When Don goes to a therapy session at the retreat, he hears a man tell a story of how he feels no one sees him anymore, that he’s just an item sitting inside a refrigerator door wanting to be chosen, but people open the door, shine the light, and close the door again, never choosing him. He’s invisible, and unwanted, and eventually his expiry date will pass and he’ll be thrown in the trash. Don, overcome with emotion and empathy, stands from his chair, strides across the room, and throws his arms around this desolate man as they both break down and cry. He knows what it feels like. In a beautiful final scene with Betty, he calls her after finding out the news she has six months to live, and tells her that he’ll take the children. She begs him not to, and says that she doesn’t want to spend her last moments on earth fighting with him, but that their lives would be so much easier if it were just the way it is now, with him in it only on the occasional weekend.
Suddenly he’s the mustard sitting inside the fridge door... and everyone in his family wants ketchup.
But is Don entirely unwanted? In the final scene between he and Peggy — and if I got nothing else out of this finale, I desperately wanted one final scene between Don and Peggy, because their scenes together are sublime — he calls her on the phone and she tells him to just come back, that they’ll take him with open arms and they need him. Here he’s wanted. This is a company full of people who prefer mustard. The problem is, he doesn’t know if he wants them.
So after the epiphany at the retreat, we see him sitting on a hill, in lotus position, oming his way to peace, and suddenly a smile comes across his face and we see the legendary Coke commercial, with people dressed much like the hippies at the retreat, standing on a very familiar-looking cliff, singing “I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing,” that super long commercial that, even though I wasn’t even born when it began airing, I still remember on TV and singing along (I think it was one of those commercials that kept being brought back for nostalgic purposes).
So Don goes to the retreat, has an epiphany, clears his head, comes home and rejoins McCann-Erickson, and brings to them the dazzling commercial for which they will forever be known.
The thing is, that’s not my preferred reading of that final scene.
There have been three major fan theories as to how this series will end.
One: Don will turn out to be DB Cooper, jumping from a plane and escaping into the air, and history books, as the man who couldn’t be traced. It seems like a fitting end for Dick Whitman. Matthew Weiner is obviously aware of this fan theory, and toyed with it a couple of episodes ago, when Don, ensconced in a meeting (where everyone is, incidentally, drinking Coke), stares out the window for a long time at a plane going by. Will he see this as his way out?
Two: Don will jump out of the window of McCann-Erickson, thereby reenacting the opening credits. I’ve never given much credence to this theory... would he be landing comfortably in a couch and flicking on the TV at the end of it? Nonetheless, Weiner played with that expectation as well, where, in the same episode as the previous one, Don pushes on the window and notices that it’s not airtight, and could be easily opened. Will Don jump?
Three: The idea that the final image would be the “I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing” Coke commercial has been one that’s been floating around for a while, because McCann-Erickson is not a fictional agency, but a very real one that is famous for that commercial. So, naturally, since McCann has been headhunting Don since season one, fans have long wondered if Don will jump ship, go to McCann, and put Coke on top.
The question is, is it possible Weiner is just messing with fans again?
Mad Men has not only been the story of Dick Whitman/Don Draper, but the rise of feminism and the importance of women in the workplace. And that has always been embodied in Peggy and Joan. In the very first episode, Peggy comes to Sterling-Cooper with her little-girl bangs and fresh face, listens to Joan’s chauvinistic instructions — which include making sure her boss is always happy, if you know what I mean, nudge nudge, wink wink — and when she caresses Don’s hand in a ham-fisted way, he immediately sets her straight. And that’s when the mutual respect between the two of them begins. She knows she’s a good writer, and he encourages her. In the centrepiece of the entire series — the phenomenal episode “The Suitcase” — we get a set-piece with just the two characters, like they’re in a play, working through their issues and with Don opening up to her in a way he never did to the romantic women in his life. She refused to let him cut her down, and he rarely did.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, you have Joan, the stunningly beautiful head of the secretary pool, who works her way up to partner. There’s always tension between Joan and Peggy — Peggy is eminently jealous of Joan, whom she believes slept her way to the top, who has men falling at the feet of that voluptuous body, who never has to actually work to get men to respect her; while Joan eyes Peggy with envy, as Peggy doesn’t have the classical good looks to get anything handed to her, whom people pay attention to because of her mind and not the size of her breasts, who might not have a steady man in her life, but who has the respect of the other men around her. In the season two episode, “Maidenform,” the question raised in one of Don Draper’s ad pitches is, who do women want to be: Jackie or Marilyn?
The answer: Both. They want to be sexy and beautiful and envied, but they also want people to love them for their minds, to believe they’re smart and capable and got to where they are based on their intelligence, not their looks.
And now, in the finale, Joan realizes that Peggy is everything she ever wanted in a business partner, and asks her to join forces with her in a production company, pumping out the TV commercials that ad agencies hire them for. Peggy turns her down, because she sees it as an easy way out, and not necessarily everything she wants to do. She doesn’t want to jump in as head of a firm — she still wants to work at it, to build up that resumé and earn that position and respect. Joan, undaunted, heads out on her own, being dumped by a man who wanted to support her, not have her be independent in any way (good riddance), and claims her place in the advertising world by calling her new company Holloway Harris — using her maiden name first, as if to trump her married name.
And what of Peggy? After receiving a phone call from Don, where she becomes worried he might actually kill himself, she calls Stan in a panic, and he finally vows his love for her. It might seem like a trite ending to that character — Joan eschews men to become a businesswoman; Peggy ends up with the man — but it’s not that simple, because Stan has always been a hippie, a freer soul who sees Peggy as an equal, sometimes even a superior. On first viewing, I felt like adding that love scene in there seemed almost pat, but maybe it’s something more: is it possible she’s found the way to be the Jackie and the Marilyn? That she’s proof that in the 1970s men WOULD see her for her mind and fall in love with her because of it? The last shot we get of Peggy is her furiously typing out something that seems to be pleasing her, while Stan stands behind her, supporting her but not standing in her way. Meanwhile, Joan is manning the phones, giving orders to a secretary — a position she once had, and likely never will again — and seems excited about what she’s working on.
Is it possible the two of them are working on the Coke ad?
We know that Joan respects Peggy enough to offer her a partnership and then tell her it’s for her only; there’s no one else she wants to partner with. And we also know that Peggy is Don Jr. in many ways — she’s ambitious, clever, and has a great creative sense. We’ve seen a ton of Don Draper pitches, and more recently, we see Peggy handling the pitches. She has a similar sense of gravitas and drama when she pitches one of her ideas — the only thing missing is the cigarette that Don would often light and use as a prop.
And finally, we know that when Don is at his lowest moments, he calls Peggy. This final episode was called “Person to Person,” referring to the person-to-person phone calls that Don makes through the episode, to Sally, Betty, and Peggy. Why do we think he’ll stop calling her? What if he calls her to tell her about the retreat he’s on? What if he calls her to cry when Betty dies? And what if Peggy put those thoughts together, and saw a Coke commercial in it?
Coca-Cola has been one of those recurring motifs throughout the series. When McCann is head-hunting Don at the beginning of the series, they keep using the little incentive that they have Coke. When Betty decides the children are now old enough they don’t need a stay-at-home mom, and perhaps she could make something of herself by returning to her life as a model, she models for McCann’s Coke ads. And Don, horrified by the idea that his wife would be stared at and adored by millions, that she might actually be able to set out on her own and become independent, quashes it. Now that Birdie is dying, but still going to college in a last-ditch effort to make something of her life, could Don be eaten up by that terrible thing he did? Would he tell Peggy about it?
Yes, Don is the one who came up with the campaign for the Kodak carousel, in that beautiful, touching moment where he saw the beginning of his picture-perfect life slipping away. His campaign is deep, tinged with the idea of nostalgia for lost things, dark and heavy with the idea that we must take photos of our happy lives, for some day, displaying those slides on a carousel will be the only happiness we have.
Peggy, on the other hand, came up with the Popsicle campaign, filled with love, hope, and immediacy. A mother smiles at her two children playing outside and then brings them a Popsicle. And they “take it, break it, share it, love it,” as Peggy pitches. It’s sweet, but bright and sunny, an optimistic look at the world where everyone shares things in perfect harmony. It’s the sort of creative vision you see in that Coke commercial. The sort of commercial that Joan’s company could have produced after Peggy wrote it for them.
What I love about open-ended finales is the breadth of possibility. Some fans would say it’s lazy, but I think it can be clever if done right. And Mad Men did it right. Perhaps Don Draper finds peace, rejoins McCann-Erickson, and reinvents himself once again. Perhaps Peggy is a huge influence on him, and her optimism combined with his sense of peace creates that commercial. I love that idea. Or maybe he stays away; in a final episode with very little time in which to wrap up everything, Matt Weiner included a scene where Roger finally fires Don’s secretary, the last thread that was still holding him to that company, and maybe that was our hint that Don’s not coming back. Instead he talks to Peggy, and she is the one who writes the legendary commercial — not because he came up with the idea, but that SHE saw the possibility of turning his experience into a commercial.
In either case, I know we’re meant to believe that someone we care about on that show came up with that commercial. And regardless of who it was, it was everyone else who played into it. Roger’s wit, Pete’s mistakes, Stan’s free-spiritedness, Betty’s sacrifices, Sally’s potential, Joan’s determination, Peggy’s ambition, Bert’s Zen-like influence, and Don. Everything about Don, the ups, the downs, his struggle to find himself in this world. All of these people came together, and that commercial was born.

I know fans will no doubt be divided on this one as they always are, but I thought it was divine, and showed the perfect harmony that this incredible show created.