#Dragonprivilege, or Daenerys as female role model

‘I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.’

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Daenerys “Stormborn” Targaryen, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoyner, and the First Men, Breaker of Chains, the Unburnt, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Mother of Dragons, ‘Mhysa’ and Queen of Meereen, has more accumulated more titles in her quick and brutal rise to power than most long-reigning lords of Westeros. She has built, lost and regained armies, won over barbarian hordes, freed thousands of slaves and killed quite a few of their masters. She has done all this without the aid of a husband, despite being propositioned every few months by a new aspirant for her hand.

Daenerys-Targaryen-Profile-HDDaenerys (I’m going to call her the much simpler-to-type ‘Dany’ henceforth) is considered remarkable.in a universe where patriarchy is near-unquestioned, where a woman’s role is basically to provide children and/or sexual pleasure. Women in Martin’s world need to be experts at manipulating others and their circumstances in order to achieve even the slightest measure of power or independence, and here I’m speaking only of those from powerful families. If you’re one of the smallfolk, life is much rougher, no matter if you’re a man or woman.

So it’s no wonder that Dany is considered to be the series, and the show’s, blazing icon of feminism. She routinely blasts apart the power structures put before her, breaking the bars of cages built to contain her and her ‘children’—structures and cages usually put down and maintained by men. In a recent episode, she literally destroys the patriarchy of the Dothraki, burning down the temple that houses the gathered khals as they insult her and threaten her with rape. Recently, again, she got astride a dragon and destroyed an army sent against her by the (you guessed it) male masters of Yunkai and Astapor. Her power is bound up in her identity as a saviour, ‘mother’ figure: her superpower is her children, the dragons, and her soft power comes from the freed slaves devotion to her, or so we are supposed to assume.

But I wonder, after so many seasons of watching her destroy things, march towards victories that no other character in the series can boast of, is Dany still an inspiring role model for women? Isn’t she a bit too, I don’t know…super powered?

“How dare you, madam!” I hear the knives being sharpened. “Are you implying that she is too powerful? Are you saying that a woman is only inspiring if she is fighting from a position of weakness, and not obvious strength?”

That’s not what I’m saying at all.

Let me put it this way: I will not deny that watching Dany storm the patriarchy and burn down things makes me, both as a fantasy fan and one who happens to be a woman, happy. I like knowing that she has made this incredible journey, from scared little girl in thrall to maxresdefaulther brother, to a powerful badass Queen who makes those epic-level statements. But maybe because I’ve seen her do it time and again (it’s been six years of burning down establishments), I’m not as ‘Woohoo Dany!’ as I was before. Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that she does these things not only because she is smart and determined, but also because she has powers that few in her world do.

Dany has dragons. No matter how she might have tried to shut them away, they are as much a part of her as her fire-proof skin. Dany didn’t triumph over the khals because she outsmarted them; she triumphed because she, unlike them, could survive blazing infernos. Dany won over the Dothraki by playing their game, proving herself unconquerable and thus earning their mingled respect and fear. Dany won over Slaver’s Bay in the same way: she paid for the Unsullied, and then unleashed her wrath via dragons. She then intimidated Yunkai into letting go their slaves, and finally, conquered Meereen thanks to her soldiers sneaking into the city, and riling up factions to assist her in her takeover. Now that her dragons are grown, it seems unlikely that anyone with a ‘normal’ army is going to be able to bring her down.

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Dany has dragons. And that places her at a power level that few people in Westeros can reach. I would say that at this point, her only worthy rival is, maybe, the Night’s King.

Since she’s at this exalted, almost superhuman status, I can’t quite see Dany as a ‘woman’ first. She’s obviously a hero. She has faced great trials, yes, but where she is now is a position of seemingly untouchable, unassailable dominance. She’s not a flesh and blood woman so much as a mythic figure, an Athena, or Mother Mary, if you will—one of those figures who is venerated and raised so far above the hoipolloi that you can’t point to them and say ‘Be like her’ unless you want to give your girl impossible standards. So while she’s an icon for feminism, in the sense that she fights for a society of equals, rich or poor, man or woman, she may not necessarily be a relatable good model for women.

But the other women of Westeros, they’re all equally, maybe even more, amazing than Dany. Arya, Melisandre, Catelyn, Margaery, Cersei, Sansa (my beloved), Gilly negotiate the brutal patriarchy of their world in varying ways, and manage to achieve their ends. Whether its using their sexuality (Melisandre, Cersei, Margaery to a certain extent), their position as mothers (Catelyn and Cersei), employing their perceived weakness to their benefit (Sansa) or just busting balls old school style by joining the boys’ games and playing them better (Brienne, Arya, Asha/Yara), these women navigate within and best the system in whatever ways they can, seeking to live the life they are given on their terms. They don’t have fire proof skin. They don’t have infallible magic, and they don’t have dragons, but that doesn’t stop them from getting what they want.

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Plus, they’re so fun when they scheme together.

Dany can afford to blast and burn obstacles out of her way, but these women cannot. They must negotiate them, use their wits, their skill sets to do so. Of course, due to their (by and large aristocratic) backgrounds, they have advantages that small folk women do not, and we see in both the books and the show how the latter are brutalised, their lack of power stark (Ros is a powerful example in the show). Westeros is much like our world, you see. While problems are universal, a person’s level of exposure to them varies.

Dany is so elevated above this mass of womenkind that she can no longer be said to belong to them. Once upon a time, she did. But not anymore. That’s beautiful, and hopeful, and she is definitely an icon, but she is not a relatable one. Not all of us have #dragonprivilege, but we can be plucky, and resolute and determined and smart the way so many of the other female characters are. And so I’d choose Asha, or Sansa, or Margaery as my role models. Dany, I love you, but you might just be too hot for me.

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When arcs come crashing down


Dark-Sansa-2When a book becomes a movie or a TV show, you can expect some changes. These might be minor, like the exclusion of Ioreth or Glorfindel from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, or huge sweeping changes involving new characters and the introduction of old ones in places they weren’t supposed to be. For the most part, I take these changes in stride. I understand the appeal of inserting Legolas into the Hobbit movies, for instance, because he forms a very obvious connection for fans of the previous trilogy, and even the Dwarf-Elf love story didn’t bother me very much.

For the same reason, changes the show runners have made in A Game of Thrones, based on the Song of Ice and Fire books, have not annoyed me. Until now.

Please note, there are massive spoilers both for the books and the TV show, going ahead.

That last episode has been the focus of a LOT of discussion. Sansa Stark is married off to Ramsay Bolton, easily the most vile and disgusting character in the Seven Kingdoms, and is raped on her wedding night while Theon is forced to watch. To their credit, the show runners shot the scene with Theon as the focus, instead of exploiting Sansa’s pain any further by zooming in on what was happening to her. But in some ways, this just served to make the emotional nadir point even more obvious. Theon, a character who has been through more torture than any other on the show, breaks down watching what’s happening before him.

What bothered me about it

Aside from the obvious fact that this storyline—Sansa getting married to Ramsay—is a HUGE change from what’s going down in the books, aside from the fact that it seems needless to include yet another rape scene in a show that seems to harbour more than a few of them (one is too many by this point), aside from the fact that watching it or listening to it made me feel sick and disgusted and terrified, there are very reader-specific reasons why this scene annoyed me.

First off—I love Theon and Sansa both. They are and always have been among my
favourite characters (numbering favourites one and two, if you want to be specific) and I supported them long before and in spite of derision and shock from friends and fellow Theon-Greyjoy-Alfie-Allen-in-GOT-206readers/viewers. I found both to have been drawn with incredible realism, being perhaps the most relateable characters in the books. These are the people who many of us, I think, would be in Westeros, characters who make mistakes and learn hard lessons. They are not heroes from the start, but they do grow to be.

In the books Theon is where he’s at in the show, serving Ramsay and playing terrorised/reluctant rescuer to Jeyne Pool, the girl who is masqueraded as Arya Stark and married to the Bastard of Bolton. Theon spends most of A Dance with Dragons coming to terms with his identity as Theon Greyjoy and all that he has done; he seeks to redeem himself, slightly, by rescuing the girl, a fellow sufferer. The point of the whole spiel is that Theon does this simply because he feels for the girl and desires to find some goodness in himself. Rescuing Jeyne wins him no favours from other houses, she does not have powerful allies they can run to—in fact, throwing his lot in with hers is pretty much the most suicidal thing Theon can do, and yet he does it.

Rescuing Sansa Stark, on the other hand, could be seen as a much more loaded act. She has powerful allies out there, and she is the Stark girl at the end of the day. No one who associates with her can forget this, not even a woebegone, maimed and castrated one-time foster brother. The selflessness and danger of Theon’s rescue mission becomes a lot more muddled when the girl he rescues is the heir to the North, as far as most people know.

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But the real reason I’m pissed is not so much for Theon’s sake as Sansa’s. I wrote a post a while ago, trying to show the haters why I love this character so much, why she appeals to me and why I do not, repeat, DO NOT find her stupid. What I love about Sansa is the way she manages to cling to some form of idealism in a world that steadily seeks to strip her of all of it. Sansa is learning the ropes of manipulation and deceit from Littlefinger in the Eyrie—where she still is in the books—but you never get the sense that she’s become cynical because of what she’s seen. She is merely picking up the tools she needs to survive, but that glimmer of hope for a better world and the life she dreamt of is still there.

Sansa is something of an icon for me in that gritty world of Westeros. she is not perfect, like the mythical Lyanna Stark. She is not super powered, like Dany or Melisandre, and nor is she as embittered and hate-filled as her sister and Cersei. I find it amazing how time and again she is faced with utter humiliation and yet emerges from it. And now, instead of constantly being rescued by men (or, let’s be honest, only by Petyr Baelish) I hope that in the books she takes the lessons he gives her and then uses them to move on peacefully with her life, not be stuck at the mercy of those around her.

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But the show, after giving her an empowering half season, where she is rapidly learning under Baelish’s tutelage and handling herself with elan in a dangerous court, throws her back down, literally, and has her delusions of control ripped away from her. And the worst part—she’s probably going to have to rely on a man (Theon or Baelish) or another protector (Brienne) to get her out of there.

I see how its tempting to shove Sansa back into the role of the captive princess, something she’s been forced into time and again. But now, when it finally looked like she was getting out of it, it just seems needless and downright cruel to make her suffer through it again. If viewers really are expected to take her seriously, as something more than a deluded little girl, why force her through the same hells again and again and have her rescued by other agents? This, this is what I do not like.

I’m holding out hope still that Sansa will reclaim her power. I have no doubts that she will. But I still don’t see why it need have been ripped away from her in the first place.

Master Manipulators: Petyr Baelish

One thing we love doing in the fantasy community is pitting random characters against each other in grand showdowns. I suppose this has a lot to do with the form of the genre, where really, each series/book ends in a dramatic encounter between the ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’, or, to give them their genre-specific names, prophesied hero and dark evil overlord. In our time out of the books however, we like to toss characters from different series against each other, to figure out who would win if, say, there was a cross-world war and Harry Potter found himself facing Darth Vader.star-wars-vader-force-choke

 

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No contest. Clearly Vader would win. Harry could Expelliarmus his Jedi sword, but Vader does have that nifty little strangulation technique.

In my upcoming posts, I’m profiling characters of a certain type in preparation to pitting them against each other—four master manipulators who pull strings and make puppets dance in their respective worlds. You can thank a rather intense and nerdy discussion on Facebook. What makes this comparison difficult is that all their worlds are so different, and their particular skills and positions are largely shaped by the world they inhabit. Therefore, removing them from their contexts and trying to view them objectively is  trifle problematic, but I’m going to ignore such purist concerns in favor of the potential entertainment these comparisons will afford.

Without further ado…

petyrPetyr Baelish

Strengths:

Utter and complete lack of permanent alliances. Littlefinger is loyal only to himself. He shifts and shuffles his allies according to his convenience, does each major house enough ‘favours’ to make them believe that he is firmly part of their team.

Money matters: Littlefinger has his hands on the economic pulse of Westeros, or whatever passes for it. He finds money where there is none to be found, makes his own from his brothels. Money is might, in any universe, and his gold is what allows Littlefinger to buy knives, protection and loyalty from those who have no other reason to work for him.

Lack of discernible agenda: This is, perhaps, Littlefinger’s greatest strength. He always keeps his opponents guessing. Does he support the Lannisters? Yes, for a while. Why? We don’t know. Does he think the Tyrells should have the power? He certainly seems to let them think he does. He plays people so well because he knows what everyone else wants, which is usually power or vengeance, but no one has the same grasp on him because his long-term plan is so hazy. Does he want to marry Sansa and rule through her? That’s a possibility. Does he just want to do whatever upsets Varys’s plans? Also a possibility. Five books in, we have no idea.

Weaknesses:

Lack of physical strength: Granted, we haven’t actually seen Littlefinger in a fight, but from what we know, he’s a small man who, more often than not, hires people to do his killing. He has never been a soldier, was quite thoroughly routed by Brandon Stark when he did try to pick a fight (fine, he was ‘little more than a boy’ but I’m pretty sure that if he had any latent martial skill, it would have manifested by then), and he does not seem the kind of man who has time to invest in physical training. No, Baelish is much too sophisticated for the old school chivalric/martial code of lords like Ned and Robert. It’s precisely why he looks down on them.

Lack of allies: If push came to shove, who would back Baelish up? No one. Even Sansa is, obviously, playing her own game with him. This is the flip-side of being a totally rogue agent. He has no family connections, no romantic connections (except Lysa, who is now dead) and the one bond he does seem to have, with Sansa, will, I predict, be the one that ends up destroying him.

Conclusion: Littlefinger is formidable. He couples immense intellectual capacity with financial know-how, and plays a game that very few seem to be able to see, let alone guess the object of.  I wouldn’t even call his bond with Sansa a weakness, since we don’t know how far he’s playing her and what his eventual aim with her is. I somehow doubt he’s going to be easily seduced and left for dead. No, Littlefinger’s going to have a bigger plan than just getting into bed with her.

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And if he doesn’t, I’ll be rather disappointed.

Next time, I’ll assess the second contestant in this face-off. Who’s it going to be? Now, that’s a surprise.

Theon Greyjoy: Fairy tale Prince

Warning: MASSIVE spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire ahead.

Excerpt from a conversation with a friend a few months ago:

Friend: I like Jon Snow. And Tyrion of course.

Me: Of course, I like them too! But liking them is so predictable. I mean, don’t you think…

Friend: (vaguely amused and partly scandalized) Who do you like then? Wait, let me guess. Theon Greyjoy?

By now she’s laughing.

theon fan art 1Yes, I like Theon Greyjoy. He is, believe it or not, my favourite character in G R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books. I’ve liked him ever since he smirked at Jon in A Game of Thrones and pissed him off. This was because it was fun to see that something could piss off the otherwise broody and angsty Jon Snow.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Theon is my favourite, given my soft spot for tormented, good-looking men who mask their vulnerability with wit and martial prowess. Of course, Theon is a bit of a jerk (as most men in ASoIaF seem to be), but that seems part and parcel of being smart, good looking and rich in Westeros.

I think Theon, in many ways, acts as a foil to Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister. If you place the three characters on a spectrum, it would range from Jon, loved and respected by his ‘father’ but uncertain of his place to Tyrion, long detested by his true father and condemned to die by his own family. Theon sits in the middle: he was raised by a man he respected, but he could never be certain of his regard (he states that Eddard Stark always made it clear that, if necessary, he would kill his ward to ensure Balon Greyjoy’s continued good behaviour). He returns to a less-than-warm homecoming and feels that the only way to win back his father’s approval is to turn his back on his foster family. Of course, this only ends in disaster with the Greyjoys, apart from Asha, abandoning him.

I thought this last was illustrated powerfully in HBO’s adaptation of the books when Balon Greyjoy, on receiving Ramsay’s grisly present, states that he ‘has no son’.

Another group Theon can be placed in is that of characters who have lost a sense of self, home and family. The theme of familial belonging is one that runs through the series: characters make decisions keeping in mind the survival of their Houses; those who act selfishly are eliminated. ‘Family’ comes first for many Houses, most notably the Tyrells (whose matriarch, Olenna, engineers a complicated murder in order to ensure her granddaughter gets a good marital deal), the Tullys (their words are, after all, ‘Family, Duty, Honour’) and the Lannisters (it’s all Tywin Lannister can talk about, and Cersei and Jaime do a good job of keeping everything in the family). Characters who lose a sense of where and whom they come from are often the most misguided.

In a previous post I stated that Sansa Stark, Daenerys and Theon are among those who ‘lose’ a sense of self in the series. All three make the mistake of trying to be something they are not: Sansa seeking to bury her northern roots and become a ‘true southron lady’ and Dany trying to purge the violence of her heritage by locking away her dragons. Theon is even more complicated than these two: instead of forsaking his roots, he turns to some half-hearted version of them, seeking to earn back his place in a long-abandoned family. Theon’s revelations and upward climb only happen when he accepts and later, gives voice to the desire that has driven him all along. He never wanted to be one of the Greyjoys; he wanted to be one of the Starks.

But for all his conflicts and complications, what I really like about Theon is quite simple: his arc, despite being hellish and terribly painful in parts, is really the most hopeful. At its corny best, fantasy is about hope. It’s about overcoming darkness and fear and living to fight another day. In the world of ASoIaF, it’s easy to forget that basic moral because Martin does such a good job of tweaking our expectations and playing on conventions. Westeros is no Middle Earth, where all you need is an Aragorn-type nobility and steadfast Hobbit courage to win the day. It’s not even Randland, where ‘love’ and willing sacrifice play such a vital role in the Last Battle. Westeros is not an idealized version of our world; it is our world, with all the petty politics, rivalries and screwing around for advantage. Only, it has the added magic of dragons and unpredictable Fire gods, as well as some strange people called the Others. theon fan art 2

In this dreary, depressingly ‘real’ world, Theon stands out. He makes terrible mistakes, but unlike most other characters, he seems to feel a huge sense of remorse, one that propels him to make a painful journey through A Dance with Dragons. Honestly, I thought Theon OWNED that book. He was the one character who quite visibly progressed through its pages: from ‘Reek’ through to ‘The Prince of Winterfell’ and ending, finally, with ‘Theon’. What really got me was that, honestly speaking, there was no real need for Theon’s story that I could see. Like many of my fellow readers, I assumed that, when Ramsay sent strips of skin to Robb in A Storm of Swords, he was dead. To my mind, he had fulfilled his function in the plot: turn against Robb, harry the North, throw everyone into confusion and thus start the Stark fall. And then it turned out he was alive, if barely. I wondered what Martin would do with him. I did not expect the sort of redemption story I got.

Of course, Theon’s crimes are pretty unpardonable. But I don’t think he’s doing any of what he’s doing (saving Jeyne, reclaiming his sense of self) in order to mitigate his actions and earn himself a lesser sentence. This seems, more than anything, a personal quest, a way in which he can die with some sense of peace. In a universe where everyone wants power or vengeance, it’s heartening to come across a character who wants something like this.

Turning the superficial, smirking jerk into this world’s version of an idealist: Theon is Martin’s dark, twisted but ultimately hopeful fairytale.

 

 

 

 

Cersei Lannister and the Perils of Love

Warning: There are spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire ahead.

For some reason, this morning Cersei Lannister’s words from Season 1 of a Game of Thrones came back to me with a force they never displayed in three viewings of the episode:

All the things men do to show you how much they care.

ImageThere’s something so profoundly sad about the way she says it.

Cersei, the consummate top-bitch that many men (and women) detest, says this during her brief condolence meeting with Catelyn Stark. Bran lies unconscious before them and a depressed Cat is making one of her signature guardian wreaths, beseeching the Mother to take pity upon her son. Cersei, who we know is one of the reasons Bran lies here in such a state, talks of her firstborn son with Robert and his death, of how her husband ‘beat his hands bloody’ on the walls, wailing against the gods. She mentions that when ‘they’ came to take the baby away to the crypt she screamed and cried, but Robert ‘held’ her.

But Robert held me. He held me.

She sounds perfectly genuine about all this, and even her sympathetic ‘I pray to the Mother that she return your son to you,’ seems true to me.

Cersei Lannister is such a wonderfully complex character. More than anyone in that messed-up world of A Song of Ice and Fire, she scares me because she seems so perfectly to figure forth how the world can really mess up a smart, loving woman, drive her to take monstrous and psychotic steps to protect her happiness. She seems to me like a warning sign against so many things: against love, against attachment and, scarily enough, the perils of non-attachment as well.

Tyrion thinks of Cersei as stupid, which she is in many, many ways. She is not half as smart as she gives herself credit for, he says. She grasps at more than she has the ability to hold, a tendency I would say results from her ever-present feeling that she has not been given her due. Because the world (she thinks) underestimates her, she compensates by overestimating her abilities. Because she feels abandoned (first by her mother, then by her husband, father and brother), she makes up for it by lavishing what might be an unhealthy amount of affection on her children, displaying a blindness to their faults (especially Joffrey’s) that leads to terrible decision making and political shortsightedness. She is so very terrified of being left alone that she gallops ahead making friends in the wrong places, trading favours for the illusion of safety and ignoring the advice of those whose only intention is to keep her from losing her head.

In some ways, Cersei reminds me of Voldemort. Like him, she’s acting crazily on the basis of a prophecy made to her in a smoky tent long years before the series opens. She is half convinced of the truth of the prophecy, which states that she will only die after she has seen her three children laid in ‘golden shrouds’ before her. Like Voldemort, one could say that her very desire to ensure that the prophecy does not come to pass is what will lead to its fulfillment. Terrified that Tyrion is the one responsible for Joffrey’s death, she turns against him completely, thus ensuring his cast-iron will to revenge himself upon her. Certain that Margaery plans to steal Tommen from her maternal grasp, she acts like a headless chicken and attempts to drive spokes into the progress of the Tyrell-Lannister alliance. A Storm of Swords, A Feast of Crows and A Dance of Dragons are all littered with examples of Cersei’s mother-headed thinking.

Motherhood is a very powerful motivating force in A Song of Ice and Fire, since it’s the one career path most of its women (the royal ones, that is) can aspire to. You have Catelyn Stark, the idealized home-maker, loyal to her husband and her children, following them across the land as they wage a war that she doesn’t fully agree with. There’s Dany, who, unable to bear children (supposedly), sets herself up as a sort of Universal Mother figure (Mhysa) for the poor and defenceless, compromising on her duties to her ‘true’ offspring: her dragons. There’s also Melisandre, who literally makes magic out of the process of birthing and messes up a major political player’s ambitions (Tyrells, I’m looking at you).

For Cersei though, since her dreams of a happy and loving marriage have been shaken and destroyed not once but twice, every Imageupsurge of affection is directed towards her children. Neither does she seem to have any especially close female friends and, lacking the support of a female coterie, something that Margaery enjoys, her only ‘trusted’ ally is, for a very long time, her twin. Even her connection to Jaime is premised on the idea that he is a lot like her. Her attraction, for sure, is based on that. In fact, Jaime even reflects that Cersei wouldn’t be happy with his beard because he won’t ‘look so much like her’ any more.

Cersei’s relationship with Jaime begs the question: is she capable of loving anyone apart from her children? Her regard for Jaime seems something born of a desire to live through him, rather than any real affection for him. The moment he begins to assert some form of independence, call her out on her bad decisions and contradict her wishes, she seems to lose interest in him. She sees his questioning her as an abject betrayal, a turning away from the family that he has helped to create. Cersei is so terrified of being left alone that she sees hints of it everywhere: even from the father of her children and her ‘other half’.

When you read her, it’s all too easy to sympathize with Cersei. At least for me. As someone who cares heedlessly and passionately, who throws herself into things (sometimes, my friends might say, stupidly), I can see where she’s coming from, how the abject fear and near-certainty she has of being alone has driven her to the bad place she occupies now. I think,  more than anything, Cersei displays what routinely frustrated love can do, how it seeks a safe channel and then will do whatever it takes to defend it. I think Cersei is the road that Voldemort was afraid of (yes, I mix fandoms sometimes), the perfect example of the sheer stupidity and fear that come with being so completely attached to something that you cut ties with everything else.

So yes, ironically enough, I think Cersei Lannister is the perfect embodiment of love, albeit love of a crazy, crazy sort. But then again, what in the Song of Ice and Fire world is not crazy?

When Gossip Girl meets A Game of Thrones

I recently quipped that, based on a rewatch of the Gossip Girl series, the Upper East Side looks a whole lot like the seamier world of Westeros. It’s got the same elements: people from privileged backgrounds/powerful families fighting for control of a limited geographic space. What happens outside of that Upper East Side (henceforth referred to as UES) area is of little concern, but for some reason it’s a power base that even outsiders want to enter or are forced to contend with, and it ends up corrupting them.

And the true voice of power here? A Varys-like figure who collects and disburses information at his/her own discretion and can lay low the most elevated with one fell swoop.

I decided to have a little fun and lay out some of the parallels between my favourite UES families and their Westerosi counterparts.

The Humphreys – House Stark

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This was a no-brainer. The only family that pretends to have any sort of noble idealism, who live outside the polluting atmosphere of the Manhattan area, but who, for some odd reason (love or friendship or simple desire to climb socially) have gotten sucked into a world that leaves them scrambling for purchase. Whether it’s Jenny’s Sansa-like fascination for all things fancy or Dan’s Jon-like ‘outsider’ status, the Humphreys are the Starks, sans the direwolves.

The Waldorfs – House Tyrell

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The Waldorfs are the one family that has finished playing out its family drama before the show opens. Headed by a formidable matriarch (Eleanor Waldorf is a little scatter-brained at times, but it was she who, by her own admission, taught Blair her scheming ways), its pride and hope rests on Blair, the supposedly virginal beauty who seeks to rule the UES with an iron fist. Blair is perhaps the one character who is most open about her desire to rule (what, exactly, is debatable at times), echoing Margaery’s famous line in the show: ‘I want to be the Queen’. And Blair will do whatever it takes, marrying disastrously into the royal family of a tiny European nation if that’s what’s called for.

The Archibalds – House Baratheon

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Baratheon, to me, has always been a bit of a random house. What is their USP? It’s not dragons, it’s not wealth, and it’s certainly not misinformed idealism. The three Baratheon brothers we meet in the course of the books are all radically different from each other, and their motto, ‘Ours is the Fury’ is rather lacklustre compared to heavyweights like ‘Fire and Blood’ or the ever-doleful ‘Winter is Coming’. But they are rich, and they are royal—indeed, they were second in line after the Targaryens were bumped off. And people do seem to like (some of) them. The Archibalds struck  me as that sort of family—very random, very rich and sitting on a huge family history that they could use to their benefit if they chose to (which they do, a couple of seasons into the show).

And Nate, if he were anyone on Game of Thrones, would be Renly. Pretty, popular, but no way would he be able to handle the pressures of being king. That’s best left to…

The Basses – House Lannister

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You knew this was coming. The wealthiest house on the UES? The one with the most spotted reputation, with the scheming, cold-hearted father and the disappointing, profligate son who (SPOILER) ends up acting out in the worst ways possible? The Basses can afford to pay off Blair’s dowry and still remain top-dog on the UES, just as the Lannisters extend credit to the throne and manage to field large armies at the same time. The Basses know how to play the games of the UES perhaps better than anyone else, disappearing and reappearing as per their own convenience. They run with unsavoury types, but manage to come out of each scandal with their fortune and their name intact.

And finally..

The Van der Woodsens – House Targaryen

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I have never understood why the VDW’s are so popular on the UES. Aside from Serena’s obvious good looks, the family seems to have nothing but bad decision making skills on its resume. Their family affairs are more messed up than any others on the show, with cheating and lying about deathly illnesses running rampant. They even have a con-artist snuggling into their ranks (literally) and passing off as one of them.

But for some reason, they are up there, powerful and making terrible judgment calls to protect themselves. Like Dany, Serena wants to  dissociate herself from the madness of her forebears and tries time and again to shuck the UES-VDW mantle, to become one of the ‘people’, whether by dating ‘outsiders’ or changing her name. Time and again, she is hauled back to awareness that she can’t escape her past. Serena is perhaps the one idealistic and naïve figure in this bunch of messed-up blondes, and she seems well aware of that.

But when Serena wants, she can take the world down in more fire and blood than even Blair is capable of. In fact, in terms of sheer collateral damage on the show, its Serena who wins top-spot in her generation.

Really, when you step back and look at it, the parallels are rather uncanny. Are we sure the Gossip Girl makers were not reading A Song of Ice and Fire when they scripted their show?

Five Reasons Tom Hiddleston should be cast as Theon Greyjoy

Image I decided, after the terrible earnestness of my last post, to do something fun and light (if not any less earnest). So I’m going to present you five reasons why my favourite actor in the world should have played my favourite character in Westeros. If you agree with me by the end of this post, join me in writing a strongly-worded letter to David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the showrunners of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Alternately, you could recommend me to Buzzfeed. Kthanx.

Tom Hiddleston is on his way to becoming a household name, thanks to his stint as Loki in the Marvel franchise. The beauty of Tom lies not only in his flawless portrayal of a malcontent demi-god, but his ability to quote Shakespeare on demand and bring to life quasi-historical figures like Henry V. And have you heard him read poetry?

Basically, I think Tom could play anyone. And the idea of him playing Theon? Exquisite.

1)      He knows how to be annoyingly sassy

 This was one of the first things that I liked about Theon. He’s smart and good looking and he knows it, and that drives people crazy. He takes risks and gets berated for it; recall how he shot the wildling holding Bran in A Game of Thrones and got yelled at by Robb for his hasty action. And his ever-present smirk-smile gives Jon and Ramsay both the heebie-jeebies. Ramsay retaliates by smashing his teeth, ensuring that Theon isn’t going to be smiling prettily anymore.

 And we all know that Tom can do a damn good smirk.

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Oh, yeah.

 

2)      He knows his way with a weapon

 Having played Shakespeare’s Henry V and Captain Nicholls in War Horse, Tom presumably knows his way around a battlefield. He’s done some swordplay and can swing a blade as well as Alfie Allen, I would assume, if not better. And yes, I know Theon uses a bow and arrow. Can’t you just see Tom drawing one as imperiously as he commands a crowd to kneel?

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That is a whole lot of regal.

 

3)      He’s played characters with Daddy issues.

 Read: Loki. And he does it so well. That perfect blend of defiance and vulnerability. He knows how to act abandoned and how to lash back. Admitted, Theon does it a lot less gracefully than Loki, but oh well, one’s a god.

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Heartbreak.

 

4)      He can do the bromance

 

Oh come now, we all know Theon and Robb have the greatest bromance in ASoIaF, not Jon and Robb. ‘Am I your brother, now and always?’ Theon demands when he swears loyalty to Robb, and with one curt nod, Robb affirms it.

Too bad things get so messed up later.

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That is an actual poster. There was no morphing.

 

Loki and Thor have a good relationship too, or did. This deleted scene from the first movie certainly seems to indicate that Loki bears his older brother no ill will. If only those other feelings hadn’t swum up…

 

5)      Because I really, really want to hear what he’d make of that epic line.

 ‘I wanted to be one of them.’

 I feel teary already.

Oh Tom. If only you’d been hanging around that studio. I will console myself with the idea that in a perfect, parallel universe, you are doing a great job as poor, misunderstood Theon Greyjoy.

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We will always have our dreams.

 

 

 

 

Sansa Stark: Martin’s Disney Girl

WARNING: There are spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire ahead.

ImageGrowing up, I was very much a Disney child. I watched all the movies and my parents bought us the video tapes (so retro!) as well as cassettes of song compilations. They even took us to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, where we spent three magical days riding the rides, greeting the characters and eating all sorts of bad food. It was, as you might imagine, heaven for a seven year old.

Of course, Disney also did mess me up a little, as it probably did most of those who grew up with it in its princess heyday. Based on the lives of Ariel, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, I was convinced at the very impressionable age of six that there was nothing greater than finding a beautiful Prince Charming and kissing him in a heart shaped fade-out. Later, when the more ‘independent’ heroines like Pocahontas and Mulan came along, I revised my opinion a little bit. This may be chiefly due to Pocahontas, my favourite Disney ‘princess’ of them all, who ended up with no Prince Charming in the end.

Evil whispers inform me, however, that she gets one in the sequel. Thankfully I have never seen the atrocity known as Pocahontas II, though I may have to some day.

But yes, for a long and rather cloudy-headed time, I thought that, based on the wishes my heart made, some day my prince would come and we would find a whole new world together (see what I did there?). My prince would be perfect. He would ride a horse, he would fence and he would, most importantly, love me and I would be his queen.

Or princess, as the case might be.

Like I said, it was only as I ‘grew up’, met less sappy heroines, that I realized that was not what ‘love’ and relationships were all about. But because I have been through that earlier stage, I cannot possibly hate a character that many others seem to detest: Sansa Stark.

Sansa is that Disney girl. She’s pretty, she’s polite, she’s sappy and she loves songs of ‘knightly’ valour and romance. She sews beautifully, she can sing and yes, she is graceful too. She falls in and out of love with gorgeous knights, giggles with her girlfriends, and, in short, believes that fairy tales do come true. Unfortunately for her, she’s terribly out of place in a world where honourable men lose their heads and golden-haired beauty often cloaks a beast.

I see why people dislike Sansa. She is silly, granted. She trusts easily and runs to the wrong person with information, thus setting in motion a series of events that leads, eventually, to the loss of (almost) her entire family. She does not (apparently) have the vengeful grit of Arya, the existential angst of Jon Snow, the heroism of Robb. Unlike her fellow Starks, she seems more than happy to make the shift to the southron court and be surrounded by the perfumed and the glamorous. If she were in The Hunger Games, she would probably have lapped up the fashions of the Capitol.

But think about it—Sansa is 12 at the start of the books. I remember myself at 12, awkward, gawky, heading into a phase where noticing boys was alarming and wonderful and always dreaming (not so secretly) of being whisked off into the covers of a Harry Potter. I was more likely to listen to a Backstreet Boys song and sigh than to read the Art of War or be interested in the politics of the world around me. Yes, I grew out of it, eventually, but I took my time.

Sansa doesn’t take her time. The girl we see at the close of A Game of Thrones is very different from the fluttery, nervous one we listen to at the start of the book. This Sansa has a determined edge, one that causes her to almost give in to the temptation of pushing Joffrey off a narrow rampart. Think about that: this is the same girl, supposedly, who lied on his behalf on the kingsroad, speaking (in her unwillingness to speak) against her sister.  At the start of the book, Sansa couldn’t bear to cross her ‘beloved’, was unwilling to see anything wrong with him. By the close, she is willing to risk her own life to make sure he meets his end. The reason she holds off? The Hound steps in.

How good was YOUR gaydar at 14? Huh?

How good was YOUR gaydar at 14? Huh?

Unlike Arya, Sansa’s grief for her father does not transmute into rage. Arya’s response is consistent with her character—always presented as ‘wilder’ than her siblings, more apt to answer with her heart than with her head. Sansa, on the other hand, at first becomes rather suicidal, but then later, when offered hope in the form of her brother’s rebellion and then the Tyrells, she regains a little of her former optimism. Her trusting nature is both her greatest weapon and her weakness. It opens her up to all sorts of manipulation, but it also wins her the rather twisted but very useful regard of Sandor Clegane.  Now, I think, based on all that she’s gone through, she wears her naivete chiefly as a mask. Sansa will continue to be underestimated, but that is all to the good in the game of thrones.

There are very few idealistic characters in Martin’s series, and the ones we see are very often read as stupid. For instance, there’s Dany, who sits around in A Dance of Dragons trying to rule a city that’s not ‘home’, that will never be home to her the way Westeros or the ‘house with the red door’ is. I’m not the only reader who had a problem with Dany in Book 5, wanting her to just get on with her quest to invade Westeros. She tries so hard, so very hard to build her ideal city on the dust of Meereen’s bloodstained bricks, and what does she achieve? She loses her dragons and, Martin would have us believe, her very ‘self’. At the close she regains it, with the memory of her house’s words: Fire and Blood.

Sansa and Theon, I think, are the only other characters who go through this loss of identity^, of rootedness. Sansa loses hers early on, when Lady is killed. With the death of the direwolf, she loses her emblematic connection to the north, and hence her absorption into the intrigues of King’s Landing seems all the more inevitable*. In the TV show A Game of Thrones, Ned remarks that Sansa has started looking like a real southron lady, her hairstyles and her clothes mimicking the fashions of the court. Sansa is eager to shed the north, and in her desire to stay among her new ‘friends’ she makes perhaps the greatest mistake of her life. The rest of the books, thus far, have seen her steadily losing her glamorous illusions about the south and wanting, more than anything, to go ‘home’.

It’s easy to dismiss Sansa, to dislike her and read her apparent quietude as ‘insipidity’. She reminds me, in some ways, of Jane Seymour in Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies—seemingly stupid and obtuse to the dangers around her, but delivering, at certain junctures, sharp barbs that pierce right through armour. For instance, who can forget this wonderful moment in Season 2 of the show (A Clash of Kings if you’re going by the books) when, with a few well chosen words, Sansa plants the idea of rushing into the thick of the fray in Joffrey’s head? ‘They say my brother Robb always goes where the fighting’s thickest,’ she says, all innocent eyes and cool composure. Of course it drives Joffrey wild.

That is not the mark of a stupid or insipid person.

And so, Sansa Stark, I raise a toast to you. You bring to life the tricks and traps of adolescence, of being quijotically in love with fiction and fairy tales. You pass through nightmarish trials, but you somehow have the stability of mind to hold on, not lose yourself to rage and despair. In that hope-starved universe of power-crazed and desperate people, I don’t know many who would be able to boast the same.

Salut!

*I wonder, really, how the direwolves would have survived in court. Martin solved that problem for himself by killing them off/removing them early.

^I will hopefully talk more about this in another post, some other day. Stay tuned.

Poor Little Rich Boy

What do Jaime Lannister and Sirius Black have in common? A lot, it turns out. They’re both very rich, from proud, aristocratic families (which are very powerful in their respective worlds), firstborn sons with great talent and wit, and, of course, wonderfully handsome. They also turn out to be parental disappointments, trust the wrong people and suffer terrible trials that cause them to question the very foundation of their worth. And yes, they have ‘sons’ who know nothing about them for a very, very long time.

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Jaime and Sirius are shining examples of that up and coming trope, the Poor Little Rich Boy (or PLRB, for short). Shae defines the trope better than I ever could; in Episode 10 of Season 2 of Game of Thrones, she snaps at Tyrion: ‘I’m a poor little rich boy and no one loves me so I say funny things and pay people to laugh at my jokes’, she mocks. Tyrion looks appropriately chastened.*

The PLRB, in my opinion, is popular culture’s response to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, painting a picture that few ‘real’ men could ever hope to live up to. Movies, books, TV shows are rife with this character- just sit in thought for a few moments and you’ll be reeling off a string of names: Chuck Bass, Christian Grey, Gawyn Trakand, Evan Chambers … While the details of their insecurity and weakness might differ, they share some traits including the notion that they have and will always continue to disappoint someone in the course of their (seemingly) empty, worthless lives.

Of course, this is remedied in the case of Chuck and Christian, but poor Gawyn damns himself and Egwene because (spoiler) he can’t get over his Rand-inflected inferiority complex. As for Evan, he was left alone at the end of GREEK, the only character who had nothing specific to look forward to.

In this post, I will examine what makes the PLRB such a compelling character, especially its manifestation in the form of Jaime and Sirius. Certainly a great deal of their allure comes from the fact that they have all that is normally associated with a ‘successful’ person: they’re rich, handsome, smart and very good at what they do, whether it’s swinging a sword or firing spells and planning pranks. At the same time, they are enormously vulnerable, whether because of love, lack of it, or their spotted, not entirely deserved reputations.

Sticks and Stones May Break my Bones, but Words Will Sorely Wound Me

Let’s begin with Jaime. When we meet him in A Game of Thrones, there seems little to like about him. He’s ‘golden’ and handsome, true, but he’s also the treacherous ‘Kingslayer’, the man who slew the ruler he was sworn to defend. A few pages after he rides onto the scene, he throws a six year old boy out of a tower and cripples him for life. After this he disappears, returns to wound honourable Ned Stark, and then is only seen again when in chains before the righteous Young Wolf.

If you came to A Song of Ice and Fire as I did, fresh from a world where characters in fantasy books were good or evil, no doubt your head spun when you reached A Storm of Swords and found yourself listening to a man you had decided to hate two books ago. When I first read ASoIaF, the TV series wasn’t even a whisper on the horizon, and so my experience of Jaime (in those first two books) was in no way as well-rounded as that of readers who came to him through the show. In A Game of Thrones , producers and scriptwriters don’t stay inside a few chosen characters the way Martin does—they present a more omniscient perspective, and so we get to see a less than wholly evil Jaime right from the start.

Instead, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays a man who wears his spotted reputation with a mixture of pride, resignation and a careful layering of carelessness. He ends the famous declaration ‘There are no men like me. Only me.’ with a half-grimace, underlining the character’s peculiar solitude and consequent loneliness. Coster-Waldeau presents a Jaime never entirely certain of his father’s regard for him, the scene in Tywin’s tent is Season 1, episode 7 (‘You Win or You Die’) being a great example. This scene does not take place in the books (at least, we are never witness to it), but serves, in the show, to begin building the figure of a man who is not entirely inhuman, even if he does do some monstrous ‘things’ for ‘love’.

It’s this lingering sense of honour, of idealism that sets Jaime apart from his twin and his father and makes him similar to Tyrion. For all his devil-may-care swagger, Jaime does set some store by what others think of him—how else does one explain the bitterness that coats his words every time he speaks of ‘honourable’ Eddard Stark and his quicksilver judgments? The strange ‘honor’ that Jaime possesses, that he slowly builds upon in the course of the books, emerges when he is divorced from his family and forced to confront the seamier, less than gilded side of Westeros. Once he is disowned by his father and heads into the riverlands and back to the warfront, the transformation of Ser Jaime is nearly complete.

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Post-capture, Jaime begins to lose some of his swagger and thus begin his journey to ‘likeable’ character in the books.

Black as He’s Bred

Just like Jaime, Sirius too is brought up as the firstborn son and heir of a rich and powerful house, one that holds certain beliefs that often seem to put it at odds (at least, in the years the Potter books are set in and make extensive reference to) with the rest of the wizarding world. To the Blacks, duty to family and bloodline is above all, as enshrined in their motto, ‘Toujours Pur’. Sirius’s breaking of Black family tradition via Sorting into Gryffindor house only marks the beginning of his stated (and canon-supported) rebellion. At the age of fifteen, he famously runs away to join another family (though he never formally changes his name), marking his clear emergence on the ‘right’ side.

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Fan art representation of Sirius Black

Like Jaime, however, the stain of Sirius’ blood/actions never quite leaves him in the text. Misapprehended as the Secret Keeper for the Potters, Sirius is jailed for twelve long, harrowing years and publicly maligned as a traitor of the worst kind. He is never exonerated during his lifetime, forced to hide and ‘escape justice’ for three years on the run for a crime he never committed. The chief reasons for the easy tarnishing of Sirius’s reputation lie, I believe, both in his family’s reputation and his own actions in Hogwarts. As Severus Snape bites out, ‘Sirius Black proved he was capable of murder at sixteen’. Though it’s never stated in the books outright, I believe this was a reason, however slight, for Dumbledore, McGonagall, indeed, most clear-thinking characters’ easy acceptance of his ‘guilt’.

O Brother, Where Art thou?

Another factor that constitutes a large part of both characters’ portrayals  is their relationship with their younger brothers. Both Jaime and Sirius ‘abandon’ their forebears’ definition of family duty to pursue their own goals: Jaime as a member of the Kingsguard and Sirius as a fighter for the ‘blood-traitors’’ side. As stated earlier, at the start of the books, Jaime does not come across as anything other than a dutiful son (chiefly because we do not actually get to look into his head in this section of Martin’s saga). He loves his brother, his worry for him driving him to recklessness and sparking off violence in the heart of King’s Landing. Tyrion himself often thinks of Jaime fondly in the first three books. The regard comes crashing down only when Jaime reveals his own part in the tragic tale of Tysha. At this point, Jaime has already broken from Tywin; this act leads to a schism in his relationship with his brother, one that I am not sure they will ever be able to repair.

Though barely glanced at in the text, it is implied that Sirius too failed Regulus, abandoning him to the manipulations and overbearing nature of his parents. Sirius speaks of his brother with bitterness in The Order of the Phoenix, implying that he was a low-ranking coward who didn’t even have the sort of twisted bravery that would carry him through his chosen service with the Dark Lord. We have no way of knowing whether he ever tried to persuade his brother to abandon the Black beliefs after he ran away from home, but given the Marauders’ general attitude to Slytherins and Sirius’s overwhelming bitterness towards his family, we can assume that whatever attempts he might have made were feeble and, above all, unsuccessful. At least as far as Sirius knew.

‘There are no men like me, only me’

Yes, I’ve already referenced this quote earlier, but I think it’s a perfect summation of the presentation of both Jaime and Sirius in their respective universes. Is there anyone quite as handsome, as well-bred, as good with a weapon or as misunderstood? James Potter may have stood in close competition with Sirius, but the former’s early removal from the series ensures that all we have of him is hearsay (and the occasional jaunt down Pensieve-lane). Besides, the ‘Potter’ name doesn’t seem to have quite the power and dark magic that ‘Black’ has attached to it, the same way ‘Lannister’ sounds a deal more heavyweight than ‘Tyrell’ in Westeros.

Jaime and Sirius’s life choices ensure that they do not follow the ‘conventional’ paths, i.e., marry and settle down to produce equally wonderful children. However, they both do have ‘sons’ (and in Jaime’s case, a daughter as well): Joffrey, Tommen and Myrcella for Jaime, and a godson, Harry, for Sirius. Neither of them is there for their children for much of their lives. For Jaime, this is a safety issue, where his very life, his sister’s and the children’s depends on the continued belief of the masses (and the king) that the children are Robert’s. For Sirius, this is because of his being locked away in Azkaban. Even later, however, Harry reflects rather ungratefully (in a throwaway line in Deathly Hallows) upon how ‘reckless’ a godfather Sirius was, hoping that he himself will not be such to Teddy Lupin. Personally, I found this reflection rather astonishing, given Harry’s immediate reaction to Sirius’s death was to blame himself for his own hastiness and willingness to succumb to Voldemort’s trap. The reading of his death as a result of his own recklessness was something I would have assumed Dumbledore would make, not Sirius’s beloved and adoring godson.

Speaking of recklessness, can we forget Jaime’s impetuous wounding of Ned Stark? Or indeed his shoving of Bran out the window? Both are the result of his ‘unthinking’ quickness, a characteristic that Cersei laments and Tyrion cannot afford. Jaime is ‘reckless’, he stabs first and thinks about it later, he cannot be ‘serious’ about anything precisely because, up until his maiming, things come so easy to him. In the world he inhabits, he does not have to wonder about his ability to succeed. Neither does Sirius. This is why they are able to treat combat and perilous situations the way they do: with a laugh, a jest and a casual grace that others cannot hope to achieve.

And yet, we still love them

They have everything, as I’ve no doubt underlined multiple times. They have everything that would make for unparalleled success in any context. And yet, they don’t find it. And that’s why they work.

I had the misfortune to brush through a terrible ‘fantasy’ novel some months ago, where the protagonist was a well-toned, intelligent, handsome man who ‘fought’ to find release. Within a few sentences, I hated him. He was too self-confident (even while being presented very obviously as a flawed and under-confident being), too successful, too together. No one wants a hero you can’t sympathize with, especially in a fantasy novel, where everything else is supposed to be sort of alien anyway.

So what makes these particular near-perfect characters, Jaime and Sirius, work? One reason, I think, is because they are not the main characters. Though Jaime is a viewpoint in A Storm of Swords and the books that come after, he is one among many voices and, he is not one we have been with from the start, as in the case of Jon Snow, Danaerys, or Tyrion. The Harry Potter books, of course, are written primarily from Harry’s point of view, and Sirius ranks far below characters like Ron and Hermione and Neville in terms of screen-time. We don’t see too much of either of these figures, a fact which, I think, makes them more attractive and less jealousy/cringe-inducing as was the case with the earlier mentioned character.

Besides, Martin and Rowling are far better writers than that guy was.

Second, I believe the manner of their introduction has a huge part to play. Both Jaime and Sirius are presented first as ‘bad guys’, and it’s only later that we learn the stories behind their supposed crimes. The readers’ initial dislike or negative impression of them is slowly corrected only after surprising and thought-provoking revelations, which raise complicated questions about duty and loyalty. It turns out, surprisingly, that these guys were placed in hellish situations (especially in Jaime’s case) and tried to make the best of what they were offered. I think our surprise at their ‘good guy-ness’ and the revelation that we, the judging readers, have also condemned them without hearing the whole story, does a lot to help us forgive them their Rich Boy angst. We are now eager to make them understand that we are different from their dense, unmoved peers. We hear them, we see their ordeals, we appreciate what they’ve been through. We are now there for them, heart and soul.

This finally, is what makes characters like Darcy, Christian Gray, Jaime and Sirius tick—the readers’ desire to be forgiving and benevolent, to hand out comfort to those who are otherwise misunderstood by their own society. We are all a little bit like Sansa Stark in that way—these ‘monsters’ won’t hurt us because we know their weaknesses and unlike the rest of the mileu, we understand them.  We know the real Jaime Lannister, we see past the glamorous exterior of Sirius Black, we really have the power to forgive them their stupidities and mistakes.

I think it’s that, really, that makes these characters so seductive. The idea that, no matter how perfect they are, they have weaknesses that only we as readers are privy to and can forgive. It’s hard, if not impossible, to exert the same kind of power in real life—all the glamorous, powerful people are not waiting for you to come to them and assure them that everything is okay. Neither would they be supremely grateful for it. But these guys—they’re all ours to forgive and love. And everyone knows that in fantasy, it’s the forgiver who’s the real hero at the end of the day.

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Frodo taught us well.

* I haven’t included Tyrion in this definition because he does not have the same physical and social advantages that these Rich Boys have. He’s a Poor Little Rich Boy with a lot more problems than these guys could ever dream of.

Welcome back to Westeros: ‘Valar Dohaeris’

So I finally managed to watch Episode 1 of Season 3 of GOT yesterday. I trekked across the city to a friend’s house, where we dimmed the lights, pulled out the peppermint (yes, for some absurd reason, I wanted to watch Game of Thrones with PEPPERMINT by my side) and hurled a beautiful print onto a big TV screen. Such a change from watching it on a laptop, which, though bigger than many laptop screens I’ve seen, still does not give the kind of awe-inspiring experience that a TV screen can generate.
Now that I’ve built the atmosphere, allow me to share my thoughts on the episode:
I liked it. I wouldn’t say I LOVED it, mostly because nothing much really HAPPENED and the music was definitely not at its peak (I am partial to Theon’s theme), and the end seemed a little ‘eh’, okay. But it was good to see some of my favourite characters back on screen after what feels like ages.
‘Valar Dohaeris’ starts with a puffing Samwell Tarly running through a light blizzard, no doubt trying to get as far as he can from (what we presume) to be the aftermath of the battle we saw about to take place at the end of the season finale (White Walkers vs The Night’s Watch). Speaking of this battle, I was a little disappointed that they took the practical way out and left it to our imaginations. Sam rather fortuitously finds Mormont and the rest of the band, only to confess to them that he failed at his ‘one job’- the send out ravens to the lords of Westeros, telling them that peril draws nearer as the winds turn colder. Mormont caps off this conversation (and bit of the episode) with the melodramatic but nonetheless true statement that unless the Night’s Watch warns the world of what is coming, ‘everyone you know will be dead!’
Lovely beginning, wouldn’t you say?

Peter Dinklage plays up Tyrion's vulernable, lonely side.

Peter Dinklage plays up Tyrion’s vulernable, lonely side.

We then move on to Tyrion, who is still in his lonely, dark chamber (he has been ousted from his Hand position), checking himself out in a mirror. Cersei pays him a none-too-friendly visit, where the brother and sister barely manage to conceal their mutual antipathy and distrust. Cersei is nervous about Tyrion talking to their father and demands to know why on earth he would want to. Is he planning to tell Tywin any ‘lies’ that might damage her? Tyrion helpfully points out that it ‘isn’t slander if it’s true’ and is then left in peace. Parallel to and companion to this interaction is a scene with Bronn the sellsword, ‘the upjumped cut throat’ who has developed a taste for the ‘finer things in life’ and gives us a chance for some frontal female nudity. It wouldn’t be GOT without a whorehouse scene after all, would it?
Then there are Davos and Robb Stark scenes–the former being rescued and deposited (against his friend Salladhor Saan’s will) on Dragonstone, where a beaten Stannis huddles and ‘licks his wounds’ in the company of Melisandre. Davos speaks up against her when she delivers one barb too many (‘death by fire is the purest death’, she croons to him–this after Davos has seen his son burn before his eyes on the Blackwater) and is thrown into prison for his pains. Not the best welcome home.
Robb and his minions, for whom Roose Bolton has unaccountably become spokesperson, turn up at a deserted Harrenhal, where scores of Northmen have been slaughtered for no apparent reason. To remind us that Catelyn is still in his bad graces, he demands that guards escort her to a ‘room that may serve as a cell’. Talisa the Volantene finds a living man among the heaps of dead and revives him with her ever-handy water pouch. He gasps out that his name is Qybrun.
Not what I was expecting, but it should be interesting to see how they spin this.</p>
<p> Now come two of the best scenes in the episode–Sansa and Shae play an ‘imagining game’ on the pier, guessing where various ships are going and why. When Shae attempts to insert some truth into the game, Sansa stops her, saying that the ‘truth is either terrible or boring’. That’s a great line, and a view of Sansa’s face shows us how she’s changed- she’s sullen looking and there’s a growing light of cynicism in her eyes. As she tells Lord Baelish later, when he offers her help, ‘I’m a terrible liar’. Is she though, really? Somehow with the new face I can’t believe it. She’s all grown up.
Shae and Ros have a bit of a chat while Baelish is crooning to Sansa about her mother (this reminded me so much of School of Thrones. The actor got Baelish spot on.). Ros remarks that ‘it’s not easy for girls like us’, pointing out how well they’ve done for themselves. Ros then asks Shae to look out for Sansa, which was quite touching. These women who have nothing, or have started with nothing, seem to care more genuinely for the girl than anyone in her social station does. Ros has always been portrayed as the wholesome, good-hearted woman, the ‘prostitute with a heart of gold’, so I guess it doesn’t come as a surprise that she’s probably one of the few in the entire series with her heart in the right place. Shae however…I’m not so sure.
While on the subject of Sansa, I should mention Margaery Tyrell, a woman who knows just how to play the masses. Lady Tyrell visits an orphanage in the filthy lanes of Fleabottom, the very area where the royal entourage was attacked and Sansa nearly raped last season. Here, Margaery plays the politician to the hilt, winning the hearts and smiles of young children via GOT merchandise (you can bet those soldier dolls are going to be hitting the shelves soon) and stories about the importance of their fathers in the defence of the city (these are the kids whose dads fell defending King Joffrey’s claim). It is very sweet, but one can’t help but think that Margaery is just being a smart politician. Coming after Ros’s simple request to Shae, this appears fake and contrived. The point, I suppose.
There is one person at least who is leery of Margaery’s ‘niceness’, and that’s Cersei. She warns the pretty young thing that she may need to start putting some ‘metalwork’ on her dresses once she gets more familiar with King’s Landing. Margaery acts sweet and optimistic and generally a little nauseating, but Cersei is ‘put in her place’ by her son who, it’s obvious, is spiraling far out of her lioness’ claws. Not too long before the mysterious prophecy comes into play for the Queen, then.

No, Margaery wasn’t the other ‘best’ scene that I mentioned. That honour goes to Tyrion’s conversation with Tywin, where the latter hurls his request for his ‘rights’ to Casterly Rock in his slashed face and tells him that ‘every day’ he sees him ‘waddling about’ is a punishment from the gods. Tyrion’s face loses the customary cockiness and brazenness he usually wears, in fact, the whole episode sees him scrounging for some semblance of the whip-smart attitude he normally displays. Tyrion is a man still reeling from the shock of battle, ingratitude from his family and his close shave with death. He suddenly seems to realize how very, very alone he is.

 

For the first time, I saw what others find so compelling in him. There is no DOUBT that Dinklage does a great job playing this multi-layered character. The changes that flit across his face in this one scene alone are sure to touch you. We see a man scrambling to reassemble his dignity, his bravado and seeming, for the first time, utterly utterly vulnerable.

 

The last scenes go to the Dragon Queen. Daenerys is stocking up on an army in Astapor and considering the ethical implications of buying eight thousand slaves to fight for her cause. On the up-side, the dragons are growing. On the down-side, they’re growing far too slowly for her liking. Hence the stopover in Slaver’s Bay and an interlude with the Unsullied, whose ability to bear pain is graphically demonstrated in a cringe-worthy scene.

 

Trouble never leaves the Dragon Queen alone for long, and she is soon prey to an assassination attempt while strolling in the marketplace (you’d think she would have learned to avoid these things by now). Luckily, the attempt is foiled by one Ser Barristan, who has finally emerged after a full season, this time with a beard. Jorah looks distinctly uncomfortable with this addition to the ‘Queen’s Guard’, but has the wisdom not to say anything. How long will ‘the Bold’ stay mum about his treachery? I’m guessing until the end of the season, at least.

 

All in all, a decent episode, if not the best. A good return to the land of Westeros. I’m looking forward to seeing  Arya, Jaime (oooh), Bran and Brienne next week (or is it this one?). And there’s always room for new faces at the feast–people do move aside so obligingly after all.