It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Most of the discussion last week seemed to be about Olenna Tyrell’s final scene with Jaime Lannister. About her (already known) reveal that she joined Littlefinger in poisoning Joffrey, her (already known) declaration that Cersei was a monster, and her (already known) no-nonsense attitude in the face of death and defeat.
Anyway, I didn’t write about it because I didn’t see the point. It was narratively inert, like much of this season has been. The scene and the performance and the characterisation was great, in and of itself, but that’s as far as it goes.
We got a larger version of that with ‘The Spoils of War’.
The dragons have been hanging around since the final moments of Season 1. There’s a conundrum with their depiction, in that to most of the Game of Thrones characters they represent the imagination of the past. This much was seen last week in Jon Snow and Ser Davos’ first look at them, and in Jaime’s face when he sees Drogon approaching the battlefield. The dragons should not be, and yet here they are.
Game of Thrones began its storyline proper with Nedd Stark executing a deserter on a cold, windswept green hillock. The brutality of the beheading, the incantation of tradition that Nedd muttered to make the execution law, and the perfunctory way the characters had to sit and watch this occur was not how fantasy should go. At least not on screen. This was a world that did things because they’d always done things, even when the memory of why they did them was long gone.
Bit by bit, Game of Thrones has edged closer and closer to Lord of the Rings territory. This much hits home with the dragon attack on the Lannister and Tarly armies. The dragons are ludicrous. They should not be. They cannot be. How does such a thing fly, let alone charge along with a bottomless volcano in its guts, always replenished to unleash more carnage on flammable humans?
There is no logic to it – it’s fantasy. One has to, because there’s no choice with this, think of Terry Pratchett:
It’s a metaphor of human bloody existence, a dragon. And if that wasn’t enough, it’s also a bloody great hot flying thing.
At this stage, Game of Thrones is leaning heavily into the silliness. The instantaneous travelling from one side of Westeros to the other has shown this season to be plotted according to convenience, and not to logic. The discernible, logical world that was presented to us in Season 1 is now just a tapestry to play games with, to move our action figures around and crash them into one another. Gone is the moral interrogation of any of the characters, given way to indulgence in – admittedly – impressive imagery.
But for what? Redshirts are burned, Jaime and Bronn escape, Tyrion gets to watch for some random reason (not random: manufactured emotion), Daenerys is never at risk, and it doesn’t really alter the plot in any meaningful way. So what was it for? Reminding audiences that the dragons can be harmed. That’s all. But we knew this already, because they knew this already. Which means they’re over-plotting because they’re worried about audiences not getting it, which never seemed to be an issue before. It’s a moment’s foreshadowing dressed up as a visual extravaganza. And narratively inert.
This is the problem with Season 7. None of the plotting has been surprising. Think of the intricacy of last season’s ‘The Door’. So much hinged on so many small details all dovetailing together at precisely the right moment. This was plodding, in comparison. Daenerys wants to know why they keep losing and why their enemies keep anticipating their move? Because everything is just so damn obvious. And so obviously placeholders for more meaningful story moments later.
The difference between ‘The Spoils of War’ and ‘The Door’ is also that we’re so much further from the books now. Last season, the books seemed almost to have been holding the storyline back, such was the momentum generated by their extrapolated plotting. No longer having to sustain characters and plots without knowing their significance, weight could be shed and we could know that everything we saw was of utmost importance to the future storyline. Now, it seems as if we’re not even operating of George R.R. Martin’s notes, but some vague conversation where he gave the showrunners the endpoint, and nothing in between. So there’s nothing complex left, nothing intricate, just shuffling characters emotionally and logistically to a stage where the endpoints can happen.
What did this episode actually achieve? Nothing in the actual battle. Arya came home. Jon found the caves. This isn’t A to B plotting. This is A to A to A to A to A…because B is the only other thing we know and we can’t get there yet, we have more episodes to go.
The scenes elsewhere were at least rewarding thematically.
Arya’s return to Winterfell brought about some interesting and unexplored dynamics for the Starks. The tension she and Sansa always had so long ago is muted now, but still there. Their embrace is not spontaneous, it’s necessary. Later, when Sansa realises not only that Arya’s kill-list is legitimate, but that her sparring with Brienne reveals so much about the time they spent apart, we’re asked to consider what is it for these two characters to be a sister to one another? When they meet in the crypt by Nedd’s statue, what is it to be a daughter? When they stand with Bran who declares he is no longer one of them, what is it to be a Stark? And how valuable are these qualities of family when everything else around them has become meaningless? How much will these qualities matter in the war to come?
The scene in the caves with Jon and Daenerys is probably the most fascinating for the ongoing mythology of the show. Here Jon shows Daenerys drawings that hearken back to a time when the children of the forest worked alongside humanity to defeat the White Walkers. He uses this as a means of compelling her to join him in the new fight, but there’s a bit more going on than just that.
Firstly, these are cave drawings. We know how fallible stories and myths in Game of Thrones really are. And we know that the children of the forest created the White Walkers to drive back humanity. So are we getting the full picture?
We need to think about the purpose of the Night King and the White Walkers. Is just annihilation they are aiming for? Eternal winter and conquering of the lands south of the Wall? Are we just buckling up for more fighting? Is Jon really going to arm the North with blades of dragonglass so they can scythe through the army of the dead and bring about a swift resolution?
Doubtful. With this storyline – thankfully – there always seems to be something else going on. Last week I discussed how a Jon and Daenerys union cannot be a good thing narratively speaking, that while they as characters might want it, the audience will be placed in a position to see this as a travesty. As a mistake that will bring chaos to the sympathetic characters.
What does the Night King want? What does he fear? What is the real song of ice and fire?
Among the crude stick figures on the dragonglass cave’s wall, there were other patterns. Patterns that should seem familiar because we’ve seen them and versions of them all before. From the cold open to the pilot episode, with the array of corpses laid by the White Walkers, to a later display north of the Wall, there is some other compulsion of the White Walkers to not just kill, but kill as part of a design. Some design they are either recreating, or attempting to recreate. Couple this with the transforming of Craster’s sons, and again we’re piecing the edges of the puzzle slowly together.
From the children of the forest, to the White Walkers, they know or see a pattern that we don’t. Jon and his band of grim followers are finding their place in this pattern.
Last season’s ‘The Door’ also gave us flashbacks to the creation of the White Walkers by the children, in a weirwood grove surrounded by a similar pattern of stones.
And then we see this pattern on the wall of the cave.
This is akin to the faces carved on the trunks of the weirwood trees. Faces that seen in context remind us of the Three Eyed Raven, twisted into place among the weirwood roots. There is something here, some story hinted at, in the suggestion of history and myth. Like Nedd executing the deserter in the pilot, this activates our imagination, wants us to see more. Drogon charring soldiers is indulging in visuals with no room for us to explore. When they explore the myths, and interrogate them, the show is stronger.
Tell this story, Game of Thrones, and do it well.