Game of Thrones: "Better" not "good"

game-of-thrones Well, color me surprised. Not only did I watch all of Game of Thrones Season 6, but I actually enjoyed it. Judging from discussion on the internet, I'm not the only one. Many people have praised the show for its dramatic improvement in quality from last year.

At some points, "dramatic improvement in quality" feels like a massive understatement. Some sort of divine intervention seems to have taken place, removing most of the absurdly overt misogyny that has plagued the show from the beginning, and only gotten more intense as the seasons progressed. Perhaps the mainstream criticism of Sansa's plotline concerned the showrunners. Perhaps network bosses stepped in because the show was losing viewers and getting bad publicity. Whatever happened, somebody somewhere decided that they needed to cut it out.

So what did that leave us with? No rapes in the background of scenes. Almost no "sexposition." One scene in a brothel, one other appearance of a prostitute, and, I think, only two topless female main characters, one of which was at least semi-justified by the story.

Basically, (almost) no more misogynistic scenes so gratuitous that they were impossible to ignore. I sincerely doubt that the showrunners made these changes because of a huge moral change of heart, but the changes did happen, to the extent that when the show fell back into old habits later in the season, scenes that would once have seemed fairly mild felt jarring and extreme in contrast with the show's new normal.

It's like a breath of fresh air. Game of Thrones gets away with a lot without losing viewers, in part because many viewers are already invested in the plot and characters from the books. I can't speak for people who only watch the show, but as a book reader, I find it almost impossible to quit (obviously, as I'm back here writing about it again), because I desperately want it to be good. So when the show suddenly drops its most overtly misogynistic elements, especially after a season that was as awful as Season 5, we breathe a sigh of relief and happily skip along to the beat of its drum again.

Because in contrast, it seems good. In contrast, it feels totally unmisogynistic. The stuff that came before was so blatant and extreme that the show simply needs to stop being so in-your-face awful for people to accept it again.

For casual viewers, there's nothing wrong with this. People don't have to critically analyze everything they watch. They can take it at face value and go on their way. I know I often have two reactions to things -- the "as I was watching" emotional reaction, and the more critical and analytical reaction that I tend to write about. One reason I enjoyed this season was that I didn't review it, and spent most of the time in that "just watch and enjoy" mindset.

The problem occurs when critics fall into this handwaving trap as well.

Game of Thrones feels so much better, on the surface, but let's be honest. Better doesn't mean it's become good. The show has all the more subtle problems its always had. Female characters who become caricatures of "badass" strength, usually by embracing misogyny or else acting in cruel or idiotic ways to show their "strength" and "independence." The plot contorts itself to give "reasons" for female nudity.

And, on a less feminist critical level, it doesn't make sense. How in the seven hells did Varys start episode 10 in Meereen, show up in Dorne to talk to Olenna, and then return to Meereen at the end, for the sole purpose of sailing to Westeros again? Can he Apparate? Even if it made sense geographically -- which it doesn't, unless the episode covered many months -- it's completely illogical. Or there's Shireen, who Davos seemingly forgot about for eight episodes. There's everyone declaring Jon King in the North, even though I can't imagine that would be unanimous, considering Sansa is right there. So many issues where the plot steamrolls on, without pausing for reason. As long as you roll with it, it's all enjoyable stuff. But if you stop to question it too much, it begins to fall apart. And critics should question it. Critics should always question.

Of course, the opposite critical approach is also a problem. If critics are bitter and mocking and determined to hate whatever they're watching, then they're not really in a position to give commentary either, except perhaps for the gifs and the lols. One reason I stopped reviewing Game of Thrones (and other shows, like Doctor Who) was that I'd reached eye-rolling levels of cynicism. I wasn't just picking faults. I was completely unable to enjoy any good elements of the show. There's no point critiquing a show if you don't, on some level, want to be impressed by it.

And there's no point critiquing a show if you refuse to be disappointed.

Game of Thrones hasn't become feminist, just because it keeps telling us how feminist it is. It feels more feminist, because it's stopped slapping us in the face with how overtly misogynistic it is, but the fact that it's no longer awe-inspiringly bad doesn't mean it's suddenly become good. The attitudes of the writers haven't changed, just the way they express those attitudes. They don't regret their past stories on a moral level. They just don't want to lose viewers. They don't want to be called out on their misogyny.

So yes, I enjoyed watching Season 6 of Game of Thrones, on a surface level, "don't think too hard" sort of way. There were many genuinely good elements -- the first twenty minutes of the finale, in particular, were a masterpiece of pacing, directing and tension-building. But many problems still lurk beneath the surface.

And since I missed an entire season worth of reviews, there are now far too many thoughts in my head, and far too many threads to fit into one general post. So this place is probably going to become very Game of Thrones-centric for the next couple of weeks. Because I enjoyed this season, but I still have a lot to say.