Game of Thrones: The Sons of the Harpy

game-of-thrones-sons-of-the-harpy_article_story_large The Sons of the Harpy was an episode with a lot of violence, and not much cohesive action. It felt like a collection of scenes that reflected on the past and prepared for the future, rather than an episode that moved things forward, and although the scenes were enjoyable in isolation, they didn't come together in any cohesive way.

This was unfortunate, because there were some very good scenes, and some very important plot developments -- they just got muddled by the episode's segmented nature. All in all, it felt like a lot of attempt at drama, without much actually taking place.

Sansa in Winterfell

As a semi-joking proponent of "Sansa, Queen in the North," the idea of Sansa becoming Wardeness is beyond intriguing to me, and I really hope that this plot goes somewhere interesting. But again, and I really don't think this can be said too much, this is not yet a story about Sansa's empowerment. Yes, "Wardeness of the North" sounds like a powerful title, but it's not something that she's pursuing for herself. Sansa didn't even know that was Littlefinger's intention before this episode, and the plan involves nothing except her simply being there when Stannis attacks. When Sansa hears the title, she is shocked and says no before she thinks about it more, and although I hope that that thought will motivate her in coming episodes, she isn't taking control and fighting for power herself yet.

Even the assumption that she'll be safe when Stannis's men attack, and that Stannis will make her Wardeness after she was first married to a Lannister and then to a Bolton, is pretty flimsy.

And her instructions for how to gain power? To seduce Ramsey Bolton. To make him fall for her. To play the Margaery role, in fact -- something I want to talk about more extensively another time, since the show seems to consider female power as either "girls suck, I like fighting with swords," or seductive manipulation. If Sansa is going to have a narrative about gaining more power for herself, of course she will have to follow the second.

There was a subtle comment on Sansa's "power" in this scene too, although I'm not certain whether it was intentional. We finally got more detail about the tourney and the crown of roses, in an episode littered with missing backstory, and the story's conclusion gave Sansa a powerful opportunity to comment on choice. All of this happened, Littlefinger tells her, because of Rhaegar's choice. "Yes, he chose her," Sansa says, "and kidnapped her, and raped her." The not-so-subtle implication being, of course, that Lyanna chose nothing at all. Someone else made a choice, and she could do nothing except be swept along by it, and killed in the process.

I wonder about this parallel to Sansa's situation -- to the way that Lyanna could be misconstrued as powerful, because "her love" started a war, because she was chosen by the prince, because so many died to save her.  To what extent does that echo Sansa's "power" now -- her power to be forced into a marriage alliance for revenge, her power to be rescued and potentially made Wardeness, her power to have people die over her. Her power to be kissed by Littlefinger against her will, and still ask him not to leave her, because he's the closest thing to a protector she has.

Events at the Wall

The Wall this week was host to both the very good, and the very bad. First, the very good -- how wonderful was Stannis's scene with Shireen this week? I love that the show chose to give her a bigger role, because her interactions with people at the Wall and the backstory of her greyscale is adding so much emotion and depth to the show. I have nothing insightful to say about this scene, except that it nearly made me cry, and I think it's good to show Stannis's softer side as well as his stern pursuit of justice. Stannis might seem quite cold at times, but he is fair to the very letter of the law, and I think it's good to have scenes like this to let us connect with him beyond his "rightful king" spiel.

And then there's the bad. I'm not certain what is happening with Melisandre and Jon, and whether she's making a powerplay or just has a crush on him, but it's another example of how women in this show either gain power through swordfighting or through sexuality. There is no other way, not even if you're a prophecy-reading agent of the One True God who can summon shadow demons to kill your enemies. The "you know nothing, Jon Snow" line is one of my favorite moments in the book, in part because it raises so many questions, but I don't understand the show's decision to take the scene's slightly sexual undertones and make them so overt.

King's Landing and the Faith Militant

I'm loving the exploration of the Faith Militant this season. I don't remember much about this plot element in the books, beyond how things end, but I think this is building up to be a fascinating exploration of power, and of Cersei's self-destructive attempts to hold onto it.

However, I'm both intrigued and nervous about how this plotline fits in with my other discussions about female sexuality and power in this show. Book readers will know how badly Cersei's attempts to use the faith to gain power backfire, as their moral military turns its attentions on Cersei's own "sins" and indiscretions, and I wonder how this will all unfold. This is one of the show's few attempts to show a woman fighting for power without using either a sword or sexuality, and it's going to completely fall apart -- and one of the reasons for its failure is Cersei's use of her sexuality to gain power in the past. I'm not sure what I think about this yet, but it's an interesting thing to note, at least.

Meanwhile, I'm a little confused by what they're doing with Tommen's age. They've clearly aged him up, but how much? Old enough to have this plotline with Margaery, assumedly, but young enough to be incredibly naive and unable to assert himself as king. So... 14? Older? Younger? And are we supposed to sympathize with him, or are we supposed to roll our eyes with Margaery? His sweetness is endearing at times, but they've made him naive to the point of idiocy too -- "aren't you and mother getting along?", for example.

I do think that we're supposed to side with Margaery, married to a king who's not sadistic but is useless, supposedly powerful but powerless to help her brother, forced to be sweet and try to woo him when she's absolutely furious inside. But I do feel sorry for Tommen too -- he's been thrown into this role as king, he's being manipulated by everyone around him, and he's too young to properly understand what's happening. Even though they aged up the actor, they didn't age up his mindset, making scenes between him and Margaery uncomfortable at best.

And as much as I adore Natalie Dormer, I do wonder about the decision to make Margaery so overtly manipulative, using her sexuality and false-sweetness to win over the king while clearly not respecting, if not downright disliking him.

Side note: is Cersei trying to kill Mace Tyrell? Because I definitely got that vibe when she sent Ser Meryn on a voyage with him.

Dorne and the Sand Snakes

The Sand Snakes only got a brief introduction here, but again, they demonstrated the idea that a female character can either have sexual power, or violent, spear-throwing power. They're brutal, they're out for vengeance, they'll throw a spear at a helpless man's head without flinching, and so they are badass. I don't remember if this is representative of the Sand Snakes in the books -- someone please remind me! -- but it rubs me the wrong way in the context of Ellaria Sand's dramatic character transformation and the rest of the show's attitudes to its female characters.

That said, I actually am enjoying Jaime's plotline in Dorne. Turning his fake hand into a visual gag was in poor taste, but Jaime has a good dynamic with Bronn, and it's providing the opportunity for some interesting character commentary. Plus there's always the fun of seeing a new plot unfold with familiar male characters, since they're likely to have interesting development and actual character struggles, rather than the things we've seen with characters like Sansa so far.

The Sons of the Harpy

So, the show has killed off Ser Barristan. His death scene was one example of "violence not plot" for me -- I was so tired of fighting and bloodshed without any actual development this episode that I tuned out and so half-missed Ser Barristan's death scene.

I do think he basically got reverse-fridged for Daenerys's sake -- without him around, she's lost her last reliable advisor, at a time when she needs his steady wisdom and experience the most, and the fact that he was killed by the Sons of the Harpy is likely to send her on a revenge kick that could set her on the same path as "the Mad King." An interesting plot development from that perspective, and one that I think will service the plot well, but the death itself seemed rather random and pointless.

And on the downside, we'll no longer get any scenes where Ser Barristan shares his wisdom and tells us tales of the past -- a shame, because I was really enjoying that dynamic.

Overall

All in all, this was something of a muddled episode, too segmented to feel cohesive. Its strongest message wasn't one about the plot, or even about the characters, but about the show's own attitude to its female characters, and to their "empowerment." If a female character is to be powerful in this world, they must either be brutal with a weapon, or they must use their sexuality to manipulate others, even if they're still only young teenagers themselves. Any other approach is doomed to fail.

I can't say I'm looking forward to seeing that develop more as the season progresses, but I think it'll give us a lot to consider, at least.