hth: (bullet and a target)
So I've been VV EXCITED about the HBO Game of Thrones adaptation, because I've been a fan of that series since forever (my copy has the old, ugly artwork of Some Guy Who Doesn't Appear to Be Ned, But Who Knows? riding randomly around Winterfell, I Guess). Obviously I went into the stratosphere when they cast Jason as Khal Drogo, because YES, OF COURSE YOU DO THAT -- it's like casting Alan Rickman as Snape. OF COURSE YOU DO THAT. You have to do that.

Anyway, it premiered last week, obviously, and I have some thoughts. I'll tell you the biggest, broadest ones right up front, but the single thing I reacted to most intensely goes under the spoiler cut.

In general: holy hell, it's pretty. It's gorgeous. So yay for that. I also am generally really pleased by the actors, with a couple of question marks in my head about casting/performance choices. Mark Addy is doing a fine job with Robert, but it's just slightly off to me: in dwelling on Robert's dissipation, they kind of seem to be missing the underlying sadness of Robert's character, which is that he is a *fighter* above all else, a man who was an amazing, competent warrior and commander, then got shoehorned by a society that worships prowess in war into governance, which, SURPRISE, requires an entirely different skill set. Robert is a shitty king and he doesn't enjoy it and has never been truly happy a day in his life since he took the throne, but he was once a giant among men, and it's the awareness of that comedown (his awareness and ours) that makes him easy to sympathize with, even through all of Robert's bullshit. I don't know that I see the former greatness in Addy's portrayal, although maybe it'll come out along the line. (They're doing a similar dance with Tyrion, whose "perversion" in the book was always much more about being a brilliant and bitter guy who was brutally honest about things that other people pretty up, more than about actually being more decadent or self-indulgent than anyone else -- which I don't think you'd get from this episode -- but maybe they're building to it?)

I'm also not totally sure about the guy who plays Jaime, but you know, Jaime is a difficult character, since he's probably changed more over the course of the series than anyone else. I'm keeping an open mind on that. I find the dude a little funny-looking, which is a slight hindrance with a character that everyone says all the time is the Handsomest Man in Westeros, but maybe that's me, and Jaime's a complicated enough character that they're smart to go with a good actor over the Handsomest Actor in Westeros, if the decision comes down to that.

In general the adaptation reminded me of how much of the wordcount of GoT (and the whole series, although probably less so than in this establishing book) is all about the internal worlds of these multiple viewpoint characters -- how much of what's interesting about it is Martin's existentialist perspective that the rules or the facts of building Westeros as a secondary world are not as significant at *the way that his characters believe Westeros works.* Everything you get as a reader is filtered through the inner voice of one particular character, so that there isn't really an authoritative narrator voice in the series -- the world is what people believe it is, and every conflict in the book comes, at the end of the day, down to people who have irreconcilable differences in the way they believe the world works.

In some ways, tv is a great medium for that, because the audience has the same perspective on all the characters: we aren't limited to any one point of view, even for the duration of a chapter. In other ways, tv is going to fail miserably, because you just can't get deeply enough into anyone to understand how who they are colors the facts you're watching unfold. It's most obvious, I think, with the Jon Snow stuff: yeah, you get that Jon Snow is the bastard son of the lord, and you get that the lord's wife doesn't like him. But because you get a lot in the book from *both* Ned's and Cat's viewpoint, there's just a huge amount of richness as to why Ned's sense of honor makes his kindness to Jon inevitable, and why Cat's sense of honor makes his kindness to Jon feel like a huge insult. There's no flatly correct answer given to that -- although modern readers with their modern values are going to default, in probably 100% of cases, to being nice to kids who had nothing to do with their parentage, Cat's *not wrong* that the obvious favor Ned shows to Jon reflects badly in the eyes of the world on the whole family. Robert provides for his bastards, but everyone understands that Cersei would fucking murder him in his sleep if he brought one to live with her kids, because it would be a gruesome insult. Cat lives with a gruesome insult every day from a man who otherwise appears to love her very much, and she's pissed about that and has no one *but* Jon to take it out on. Once you see that from her point of view, and you see from Jon's that he feels very keenly the lack of a mother in his life, since all knowledge of his own mother is kept from him and the woman who mothers his siblings can't bear to be near him -- it's just really poignant and complicated, a terrible situation where you can sympathize with everyone involved. That's the kind of stuff that makes the book intelligent and truthful, in a way that I'm just afraid the tv show never really can be.

Okay, but still, it's really gorgeous to look at, and I have high hopes that a lot of the intrigue plotlines are going to come out very well -- can't wait for the scene where Arya gets trapped down among the dragon skulls!

So, then. About Daenerys and Drogo.

Full disclosure: Daenerys is by far my favorite character in the series. By far. And I have strong feelings about Khal Drogo, the Dothraki, and her role as the Khaleesi, both from a basic story perspective and from a specifically feminist perspective. So I'm not a disinterested viewer, and there were probably a billion ways they could've failed to live up to my every hope and dream. The one way they picked, however, WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK?


Here's how Dany and Drogo's wedding night went on the show, summary by way of Shakesville.

"But the true nadir of the episode was the scene of Khal Drogo raping his teenage bride, Daenerys Targaryen. As he removes her clothes, she covers her breasts; he moves her arms and tells her, "No." She asks him if he speaks the common tongue; he replies, "No." She asks him if no is the only word he knows in the common tongue; he replies, "No." The only thing he ever says in the scene is no. I can't adequately describe my reaction to watching a scene in which a huge man is fixing to rape a petite girl, telling her, over and over, no no no. Her character, of course, is never allowed the say the word at all."

And that's a pretty correct description of what happened and why it was dreadful.

The thing is, THAT SCENE ENDS ABOUT A PAGE BEFORE THE SCENE IN THE BOOK ENDS. In the book, it goes basically just that way, except that she gets increasingly frustrated by the fact that he's trying to say something and she can't figure out what, until she figures out that the reason he keeps saying "no" is that he's trying to tell her, he knows what no means, and will understand her if she says it. See how that's kind of a little bit completely the fucking opposite of the show, where you never do figure out why the fuck he's going on like that? And in the book -- is this some kind of fucking subtle distinction that the screenwriters thought wouldn't matter? -- WHAT THE FUCK, SHOW? -- the scene ends when SHE SAYS YES.

Problem number one: they invented a straight-up rape scene for Dany and Drogo's wedding night. Just created it. It didn't exist in the book. In the book, it's a laborious negotiation between a guy who's trying to make the wedding night pleasant for his arranged child-bride, and a girl who's terrified by but frankly pretty attracted to him. They managed to edit, shoot, and air *almost* the same scene, only without Drogo appearing to give half of a fuck what Dany thinks about anything, and without the slightest hint that Dany is experiencing any sexual arousal whatsoever. That becomes A TOTALLY DIFFERENT SCENE, WHICH THEY INVENTED. A rape scene, just tossed in there for no particular reason.

Now, yes, even in the book there's a palpable and deliberate question of consent in this and the surrounding scenes. Can a barely pubescent girl with no life experience whatsoever, raised in near-isolation by her only living relative, an abusive madman, possibly be said to give anything like consent to the older, stronger man she's been sold off to? Arguably no. And that's a question I think you're completely supposed to think about in the book, and "arguably, no" is probably exactly the answer Martin expects you to arrive at. If you wanted to just deal with the whole series as expressing the theme that "in patriarchal cultures of arranged marriage, rape is institutionalized and is the lot of most women," I think that's actually completely valid. Situations like Cat's, where she happened to have no choice but to fuck a guy she was crazy about, are the exception rather than the rule. Most women are more like Dany, told who they'll be having sex with, possessing no ability at all to change the situation. Consent, for a princess like Dany, is a thing that never really existed in any way that matters, so you could I guess make the argument that by shifting her wedding to something more transactional than it was in the book drives that point home.

Here's why I have a huge problem with that argument.

Unlike a lot of quest-sidequest-levelup-bossfight fantasy novels, ASoIaF actually engages with moral issues on a near-constant basis, and Martin presents a pretty much entirely self-consistent moral universe and line of logic from the beginning of the series to where it stands right now. I would sum it up thusly:

1) Power drives the world, at every level. Every culture, every institution, every ideology, is constructed, exploited, or both by the powerful in order to retain power, which is largely expressed over the backs of the less powerful and the disadvantaged.

2) The signal moral choice of a human being's life is whether to acquiesce to that fact or to commit to doing something decent, in the face of everything your surroundings promote.

3) People who just go for broke and use the system to shore up ever-increasing amounts of power are monsters. People who believe you can just do the right thing and things will work out are schmucks, and will probably die.

4) Living well in the world is a demanding, complicated dance, a game. The people who are both admirable and useful have the ability to make judgment calls on the fly, to choose their moment to stand on principle, and their moment to do what has to be done. Life is a struggle that boils down to finding the best ways one can to keep hold of essential humanity and compassion without becoming a victim.

It is, as many people have said, a hugely cynical series in many ways -- hence its popularity with a hugely cynical generation of fantasy fans who just don't relate to Sam and Frodo's against-all-odds sweetness and decency. But at the same time, I think it's a very ethical series, in that it does advance the idea that even though no individual possesses the power to upend all the systems of oppression and exploitation that exist at every level of the world, it *does matter* what kind of a person you are as you navigate through those systems. It matters where you draw your lines and what kind of choices you make and whether you find ways to reach out to people even when you know it's not required, or even when it's dangerous. Moral choices matter in GoT, a lot, because you create your character through them, even when at the end of the day, they may seem futile. They weren't futile; they made you the person you were, one way or another.

So it really kind of matters a lot what Drogo did on his wedding night. Yes, the outcome is basically forgone: this is a world where he's a hugely powerful ruler, and he's certainly going to take a khaleesi who is an ornament to him and a bolster to his power, probably without much regard for niceties like affection. Daenerys is who she is, and she's probably not really going to tell him to get lost, when her whole life quite literally now depends on his protection and goodwill. It's almost a certainty, within the logistic and psychological rules of Drogo's universe, that he's going to have sex with this scared girl who doesn't even speak his language tonight.

Khal Drogo's character is created and revealed in the *way* that he navigates this impasse. He is the kind of man who is conscious of and compassionate toward her fear, the kind of man who cares how she experiences this situation. He tries his very best, within the limitations he's stuck with, to communicate to her, to please her, and to demonstrate respect for her. Is their sex consensual in the book? Arguably no. Arguably, it never could have been. But that scene creates a character who has a moral core, a drive to limit his own exercise of power and privilege to at least some degree out of deference to someone he doesn't have to defer to. That scene is how we first learn that Drogo is a good man. Taking all of that out of it does significant violence to his character, and I have absolutely no idea why they chose to do that. None. It absolutely baffles me.

It doesn't alter Dany's character in the same way, in a moral sense, but I think it does some wonky things in other ways. It's not a minor thing for her arc, that she goes from abuse and virtual slavery among "civilized" people like her brother, to an unfolding sense of pride and freedom as a "barbarian" khaleesi. The Dothraki are certainly not noble savages, but the significant thing is, they are also no *more* savage than the people of Westeros -- what comes out across the course of the book is essentially that the differences between the two societies are nothing but cosmetic. Both are warrior cultures where the ability to kill is granted status, both are viciously oppressive to people, within and without, who have the bad fortune to lose wars or not be able to prosper in them, both treat women like goods, and both pretty up the raw exercise of force with various ceremonies and beliefs about their own righteousness. It's all the very same, however different they look, which means that once again, everything comes down to how you try to live in the world. I think making that scene seem more brutal, in comparison to the two sex scenes we see in Westeros (Jamie and Cersei's possibly horrifying but also genuinely consensual and even loving affair, the happy hookers who seem to be having just the time of their lives working in a Winterfell brothel), undermines that by making it seem as if the Dothraki really are crueler than the civilized white people up north -- when a major point in the book is that they are not; they are exactly the same.

One thing that's often struck me about the series is that there are really fascinating parallels between Daenerys and Cersei, in essence the two Queens of Westeros. Both of them are people of immense inner strength and resourcefulness. Both of them, because they are women, are not candidates for the actual exercise of power, and instead are used as bargaining pieces by the men in their families, who consider them family property to be deployed for gain. Both of them actually want things, have basic human motivations toward happiness and self-actualization, but live in worlds where it frankly doesn't matter what they want, even as they have the putative comforts of rank and empty privilege. Both are married against their will to men they never, ever wanted to marry. They are both, in more than one way, queens with no thrones.

One of the ways in which Robert is an interesting, flawed character is in his treatment of Cersei. He never wanted her and always resented her for not being the dead woman that he did love; he made it very clear to her throughout her adult life that she was the price he had to pay for access to Lannister troops and gold, and that was the full extent of her worth. Yeah, Cersei is terrible person, but I think the book raises the perfectly reasonable question, would she have been a terrible person if she weren't a woman of incredible competence who's been treated all her life like she's worth absolutely nothing? Cersei is a ball of frustration and anger, and she stands at the heart of the book's conflict because she's willing to break every rule that exists in her world just to have one fucking thing that she wants: she wants the only person in the world who actually loves her to be her lover and the father of her children. She wants Jaime. All the death and the horror of the whole series snowballs out of that. Cersei Lannister-Baratheon is an ambitious and talented woman who wants one thing to be in her life because she wants it, in contrast to every other aspect of her life, which is there because her father and husband want them. She's the epitome of self-serving ruthlessness, and I find her impossible not to sympathize with. It sucks to be Cersei! Twyin Lannister and Robert Baratheon made sure of that.

Daenerys could've been exactly the same. She could've spent her whole life as a pawn, existing only to bring profit to powerful men around her. Maybe it would've made her as bitter and grasping as Cersei; more likely she would've continued to internalize it, to believe that she really was helpless and worthless. But her situation in a personal sense was reversed: it was her brother who never really gave a shit about her, and her husband who saw her as inherently lovely and loveable. This turns out to work a lot better.

So it's kind of completely crucial, I think, to Daenerys's development, to get her from the point of believing she's helpless and meaningless, to the point where she is in the later books -- a straight-up warlord in her own right, the Mother of Dragons, and a perfectly reasonable candidate to rule Westeros. In the book, it's really her love affair with Drogo that kicks off that change. In the show, I have no idea what they're going for -- will she go ahead and have that love affair post-rape, old school bodice ripper style? Is it just going to spontaneously happen with no help, out of a bottomless well of awesomeness on her part? I could live with that, I guess, if it weren't coming out of a source material that's way too astute to fall into a silly trap like that. GoT is very smart about the fact that people's situations and relationships shape who they are and the choices they make; I'd rather the tv version weren't dumber about that for no special reason.

All that is a long, long, long way of saying, the show adds more rapiness than the book had, which I'm pretty skeptical about at the best of times, and I cannot for the life of me figure out what the net gain to it is. Why make that choice? In a show that's almost excruciatingly faithful to details, why shoot a pivotal scene with utter fidelity even to the specific dialogue, and then end it without resolution to leave an impression that's almost 180 degrees away from the impression the book leaves? Somebody had to make this decision at some point, and I want to know why, goddammit.
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hth: recent b&w photo of Gillian Anderson (Default)

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