May 24, 2015, 9:00 p.m. (EST), HBO
This season of Game of Thrones is currently on very thin ice, in my estimation. I’ve talked before about my decreasing faith in the showrunners to effectively deviate from the source material, and season five has in many ways made my worst nightmares come true, in that regard. This series is, when it diverges from A Song of Ice and Fire, as a rule more violent, more misogynistic, less complex, less coherent, and less layered in its characterizations and themes. Last week’s divergence, namely, the rape of Sansa Stark was, I expect, a breaking point for many fans of the show, and were I not dedicated to reviewing the rest of this season, I strongly suspect it might have been the last episode of the show I ever wrote about. I held back my fury in last week’s review out of a vague (and, I worried, unrealistic) sense that the show might have learned its lesson from the functionally unaddressed rape of Cersei Lannister last season (that the showrunners did not think it was a rape is not an excuse so much as another symptom of a very serious problem at the core of this show). I don’t think that’s a lesson they’re likely to learn, and at this point, watching Game of Thrones is likely to mean putting up with some disgusting, senselessly cruel and unthinkingly sexist material in order to get at many of the things this show does well. I’m not sure it’s a price I’m willing to pay in the long term.
“The Gift” is a better episode than “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” for a lot of reasons, but much like my reticence to fully engage last week in my feelings about Sansa’s rape, I feel I can’t give full credit to anything the show is doing here tonight because once again, it remains to be seen whether they do anything good with the changes they’ve made. It’s thrilling to watch Tyrion come face to face with Dany for the first time (especially since this is something the books haven’t broached yet, another convergence that is a creation of the show), in a way that reminded me how much I care about this story and these characters. Of course, that excitement exists in the shadow of much greater disappointment, as the show continues to engage in basically pure torture porn at Winterfell. Perhaps someone thought not showing us an old woman being flayed alive was a kindness, but at this point, the Winterfell plotline exists on a show I would prefer excised from the series entirely. It exists to make the longest suffering character suffer longer at the hands of the most one-dimensionally wretched, a sickening form of wheel-spinning that again and again forces me to contend with how far I am willing to follow this show into the dark. This story needs to go somewhere different, and fast, or it risks me losing all faith in Benioff and Weiss in the other, much more intriguing storyline in Meereen. Diverging from the books in the North has lead to the pointlessly repetitive and infuriatingly obtuse torture of Sansa at the hands of Ramsay, which tempers, to say the least, my excitement about what the show will do now that two of its best characters, Tyrion and Dany, are finally in the same place. I can’t trust that it will be as awesome as it should be, because frankly, I can’t trust Game of Thrones with a narrative I am very much a fan of. The show has lost my faith in its ability to be an adaptation, which exacerbates any of its flaws and diminishes my hope for triumphs. All of this could turn around next week, if the Winterfell storyline gains a point beyond wanton cruelty, or if some bone is thrown my way that leads me to believe this show can give us the Dany and Tyrion we deserve, but for now, I am forced to remain deeply skeptical this isn’t all going south, and quickly.
At the Wall, the show pulls out the threat of rape again, and then pushes Gilly and Sam together in ways that are discomfiting to sat the least, and potentially quite troubling. I’ll talk more about Sam’s arc down in the spoilers section, as it is unclear whether the show may still use parts of it going forward, but suffice it to say that Gilly narrowly escaping sexual assault and then immediately leaping into bed with the guy who saved her is not my favorite choice the show has ever made, even if it has done some solid work building Sam and Gilly as two people romantically interested in each other. It’s hard not to read this sequence as the show glossing over yet another attempted sexual assault, a further example of a female character just letting it roll off her back because Game of Thrones does not know how to engage with survivors of sexual assault and attempted sexual assault. There’s a difference, of course, between what is going on with Sansa (and what happened to Cersei last year) and Gilly’s situation, however, in that Gilly, having grown up as one of Craster’s daughter-wives, has a long history of sexual assault in her past. That doesn’t mean her reaction to it entirely tracks, for me, but it also means I am willing to give the show more berth to allow Gilly to process the experience than I am to give it a break for what its doing with Sansa a few hundred miles south right now. I don’t really buy this storyline, honestly, and I think the show hasn’t by any means earned the benefit of the doubt I am granting it by approaching Gilly’s reactions differently, but then, the biggest problem I have with Game of Thrones right now is that it tends not to treat its female characters like people instead of pawns. And while I may not like how this sequence reads, I can’t comfortably claim Gilly isn’t given agency in her encounter with Sam, isn’t allowed to make a choice for herself in the face of a world where she has been denied that power again and again. I wouldn’t have told the story this way, but I cannot be as angry about this, at this point, as I am about the treatment of plenty of other women on this show on a regular basis.
Similarly, Tyene Sand’s seduction of Bronn is a scene that might read differently in a context not so closely connected to “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” It’s a moment that could be seen as empowering for the character, except that, like Sansa’s rape last week, its shot largely from the perspective of the man in the situation, and the whole thing is so focused on the male-gaze, its hard to see the moment as empowering rather than simply titillating in a way that avoids the sexposition trap just barely. And while there is an easy explanation for the nudity (I guess it would get the blood flowing and arguably make the poison work faster?) that explanation isn’t textual, which makes Tyene’s “show of power” read more as nonsensical stripping down for Bronn, whom she ends the scene assuring she finds handsome (again, for no real reason).
“The Gift” is stained by what came before, and by the inevitable doubts that has left in my mind for what may be coming later. The last three episodes of this season may be so amazing as to put its deep, inherent flaws in better perspective, but my hopes are not high, and as a result, my feelings towards the show have curdled a bit. It gets less credit from me in some areas than it ostensibly might, this week, and it gets no benefit of the doubt when it comes to many of its questionable or downright distasteful uses of its female characters. Game of Thrones has serious work to do to win me back to its side at this point, and Benioff and Weiss have never really struck me as the pair to do it. It’s a shame, because they are now in territory that should feel pulse-poundingly propulsive and instead leaves me with a sense of anxiety and dread rather than a desire to see where all of this is headed.
- “I dreamed that I was old.”
- “Bastards can rise high in the world.”
- “You are the Queen. You can do what you like.” “No, I can’t.”
- “I am a Queen, not a butcher.” “All rulers are either butchers or meat.”
- “Have you ever sowed a field, Lady Olenna? Have you ever reaped the grain? Has anyone in House Tyrell? Your time of wealth and power has left you blind in one eye. You are the few. We are the many. And when the many stop fearing the few…”
- “You’re lucky he’s a singer. If he were a fighter we might’ve been in trouble.” “It’s against my code to hurt a woman.” “Its amazing how many men we beat seem to have this code.”
- “The past is the past. The future is all that’s worth discussing.”
- “What will we find when we strip away your finery?”
- SPOILERS So Aemon Targaryen’s death happened at the Wall rather than in Braavos, but the show has basically still put all the pieces in place for Sam and Gilly to head to Old Town, if it wants to go in that direction. Cersei’s downfall is set in motion here, though the show implies it is partially due to the scheming of Littlefinger and Olenna Tyrell, in ways that may or may not make sense, and also kind of hurt Cersei’s overall arc this season.
“The Gift” is stained by what came before, and by the inevitable doubts that has left in my mind for what may be coming later.