Jon Snow’s body lies a mouldering in the grave,
Jon Snow’s body lies a mouldering in the grave,
Jon Snow’s body lies a mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on…
We begin with the body of a young man, lying dead in a courtyard. We end with the body of an old woman, putting herself to bed. In between we have discussions of other bodies, alive and dead, beautiful and horrible, desired and despised. What are they worth, these curious objects? What do we see when we look at them, and what secrets and values do they contain that we do not see?
Game of Thrones has never wanted for bodies: dead ones litter the landscape, while live ones are bought and sold, objectified and used, tortured and taken and conscripted into service. In their sheer numbers, the bodies become faceless, meaningless, disposable. Men and women alike are traded, by the gross, like commodities. Kings casually push game tokens around boards, each one stoically representing the unmarked lives and deaths of thousands of individual souls. Millions of bodies are enslaved to labor for the rich; millions of bodies are carelessly sacrificed as the thankless fodder of war. (And death, it seems, is no reprieve: North of the Wall, there is an army that reanimates dead bodies and turns them against humanity itself.)
In such a brisk and wholesale market for human bodies as objects, what is the value of a single human life? This, as I’ve long argued, may be the central theme of Game of Thrones. For some characters, it is the challenge of developing empathy and compassion: to learn to see, and recognize, and acknowledge the subjective individual in a world of objectified and othered masses. For other characters—and particularly for women—it is the fight to be seen, and recognized, and acknowledged, as ensouled individuals, in a world that constantly threatens to turn them into things. For all, it is the quest to find individual meaning and purpose, to live a life that somehow transcends the rank realities of the physical, and to know that, when they die, they leave behind something more than food for worms.
Welcome back to Game of Thrones. As always, we have a lot to talk about.
“Jon Snow was my friend.” — Dolorous Ed
The first body with which we have to contend, of course, is Jon Snow’s.
And watch how Benioff, Weiss, and director Jeremy Podeswa approach this body, in the opening shot of the season. We come out of the familiar title sequence, with its bird’s-eye view of the Seven Kingdoms, and fade into another bird’s-eye view, high above Castle Black. We move in, steadily closer and lower, until we swoop all the way down to a close-up of the dead man in the courtyard.
I want to dwell on this a moment, because I think it’s a mission-statement shot. The show is called Game of Thrones, and the brilliant title sequence shows us the game board: all the various nations and houses that have jockeyed for power since the series began. But there are no people in the title sequence: the map we see is like the war tables on which the kings and commanders plan out their strategies, moving those anonymous tokens around without regard for individual life.
Once, we might have described Game of Thrones as a show about warring kingdoms. (Remember when “The War of Five Kings” seemed like the entire plot of the show?) But by now, five seasons in, we know that this is not really a show about war and politics. We still care about who ultimately sits the Iron Throne, I suppose, but it no longer seems like the most pressing—or most interesting—question. This is a show about people: just individual cripples, bastards, and broken things, struggling to maintain their souls and identities against forces that threaten to turn them into fodder for one cause or another. The greatest sin on Game of Thrones—as we’ve seen time and time again—is to disregard and devalue individual life in the name of a larger cause.
And so “The Red Woman” opens with a push-in from the political to the personal, from the higher plane to the lower: we begin from a view of the world that is about kingdoms and borders, and move down to a tight focus on the stark reality of a single bloodied corpse. Religions and politics and abstract concepts of honor are the lies that shape this world, but this is reality: the body of one good man who has lost his life. This is what it’s really all about. This is what matters.
It’s a sentiment articulated a few minutes later by Dolorous Ed. “I don’t care who sits at the High Table,” Ed says. “Jon Snow was my friend.” For Alliser Thorne and his co-conspirators, assassinating Jon Snow was about honor and tradition and politics. For Ed, none of that matters: this is personal, because they killed his friend. “For the Watch,” the conspirators said, as they stabbed Jon Snow. But the Watch is an abstraction: Jon Snow, whose body lies on a table throughout this scene, was a real person.
Jon—one of the “cripples, bastards, and broken things” of the Seven Kingdoms—was always willing to stand up for real people, even if it meant harming the cause or bucking traditions in place for thousands of years. That, in the end, is what killed him, because the appeal to compassion Jon represented—to stop seeing the Wildings as other, and start seeing them as people—was a threat to the social order, and to the entire worldview, of men like Alliser Thorne.
And it is this quality in Jon Snow that makes Davos a natural ally to his cause. In truth, Davos is much more like Jon than he was ever like Stannis. Stannis, in many ways, was the embodiment of the same forces that threaten to devalue individuals. Tradition, honor, causes, religion, were always more important to him than people, and more important to him in the end than his own daughter.
But Davos is a good guy: perhaps—since the death of Ned Stark—the most wholly decent man in Westeros. We can call his long support of Stannis misguided, but his loyalty came not from ambition or abstract faith, but from a deeply personal place of love. (Ned, in fact, was misguided in similar ways, by his love of Robert.) Davos values individual human life in a way that Stannis never did. He tried to force Stannis to see Gendry as a person, not a pawn to be sacrificed, and ultimately defied him by setting Gendry free. And we suspect Davos would have died himself before letting Stannis burn Shireen, which is why Stannis had to send him away. Davos was Stannis’s conscience, the angel on his shoulder, trying to make room in Stannis’s crusade for compassion, and empathy, and respect for individual life.
And, if Davos was the angel on Stannis’s shoulder, his counterpart on the other shoulder was the Red Woman, Melisandre. But that dynamic may be shifting now.
“I can’t speak for the flames, but he’s gone.” — Davos
“The Red Woman” almost—almost—accomplishes the impossible: making me feel sorry for Melisandre.
I’ve made no secret of my hatred of this character from the first moment she appeared. If Game of Thrones is, as I’ve argued, largely a fight for empathy and compassion, Melisandre has always been the player on the other side. Other villains—Joffrey, Ramsay, Roose, Walder Frey, Littlefinger, etc.—have done monstrous things, but their crimes have mostly come from recognizably human places: in their own twisted ways, they have seemed part and parcel of the full exploration of human nature that is part of this show’s project.
But we have seen almost nothing recognizably human in Melisandre: her blind commitment to her god has removed her from the messy throng of humanity and set her apart. (She would say it has set her above.) There has always been something coldly and abstractly evil about her: unlike other characters, she does terrible things not for her family name, or even for herself, but for some distant and unseen god that she worships with a zealot’s absolute certainty. This refusal to even question the rightness of her own actions has made her dangerous, and her allegiance to a plane of reality that is not the one on which the rest of the human race lives has made her uniquely monstrous. Human beings are nothing to her, to the extent that she could joyously burn a sweet, innocent child at the stake in the mindless pursuit of her cause.
I have been on the fence about whether Melisandre really believed everything she claimed to believe. Was she a zealot, or a con-artist? But “The Red Woman” makes it clear that Melisandre is now undergoing a genuine crisis of faith. Stannis—whom she believed to be the human vessel of her God—is dead, and the great victory she promised him (in exchange for burning his own daughter) turned into a humiliating defeat. This is not the first time her prophecies have been wrong, but it is the most crushing: she had put all her spiritual eggs in Stannis’s basket, and they got smashed to pieces. (She had visions about Jon Snow as well, and now his death is just another blow to her faith. “I saw him in the flames, fighting at Winterfell,” she says. “I can’t speak for the flames,” Ser Davos replies, “but he’s gone.”) Melisandre, whose evil has always come from her absolute certainty in the rightness of her own actions, has finally been forced to acknowledge to herself that she was wrong.
And so, when she removes her ruby choker at the end of the episode, and reveals her true form, there is something very poignant about the gesture. This is a woman who has dealt solely on the spiritual plane, at an almost complete remove from humanity. Now, at her lowest moment, we see her stripped—literally and figuratively—of all her illusions: her illusions about herself, and the illusions she used to manipulate men for her cause. This old fairy tale trope—the beautiful woman revealed to be an old crone of a witch—could be played for horror, but it isn’t: Melisandre seems sad, vulnerable, even sympathetic, as she shuffles, naked and hunched, into her bed. She has come down off the spiritual plane to the physical realm, her character now centered in the reality of her aged body. This is not a woman revealing herself to be a monster: this is a monster revealing herself to be a woman.
And there is something thematically playful in the show’s handling of this scene, which begins as just another gratuitous display of a beautiful young woman’s body. Even the staunchest defenders of Game of Thrones would, I think, acknowledge that the show has a tendency to objectify women, and Melisandre has never been shy about displaying her body. But here we see that that body was an illusion: Melisandre had turned herself into an object of desire, the better to manipulate and control simple-minded men. Now, she de-objectifies herself, at the moment when she herself is perhaps becoming more human.
There’s a final point about this I want to make, which takes us into the realm of speculation. I think most of us have assumed that Melisandre would resurrect Jon Snow: her arrival at Castle Black just before his death was a little too convenient. But, in terms of the overall theme, it’s important to remember that resurrection is not a power Melisandre has ever had. She was shocked—and, I think, I little jealous—when she discovered that her coreligionist Thoros of Myr had this power, back in “The Climb.” And, at that time, Thoros explained that he didn’t always have this power either: in fact, he was “a terrible priest” who didn’t even have faith. What changed was not something abstract or spiritual, but deeply personal: his friend was killed. “I knelt beside his cold body, and I said the old words,” he explained. “Not because I believed in them, but he was my friend, and he was dead, and they were the only words I knew.” It was not removal from humanity that gave him power, but attachment to humanity: friendship, compassion, love.
If Melisandre is going to end up with the power to bring Jon back, her becoming slightly more human may be the important first step.
“Do you remember the first time you saw a dead body?” — Cersei
It’s worth noting that the “witch” motif is one that runs throughout “The Red Woman,” linking the stories of Dany (who is called a witch), Cersei (who speaks of a witch’s prophecy), and Melisandre (who is a witch). And there are thematic similarities in their current circumstances, as all three have been humbled, stripped of their illusions and brought down to reality.
Cersei’s humbling began last season, as she found her titles and power progressively taken away. The season ended with her being reduced to just a body: naked, dirty and bleeding, marched on shamed display through the streets of King’s Landing to be called “whore” and “cunt.” Now we find her recovering from her ordeal, and the news of a ship from Dorne brings what we suspect is the first smile that has crossed her face in months.
But her joy—which is heartbreaking to see, as she practically skips to the docks—is short-lived: it turns to ashes on her face as she catches Jaime’s expression, and sees the shrouded body of her daughter Myrcella lying on the deck behind him.
Cersei’s one redeeming quality has always been her love of her children, but her downfall has always been that she could love no one but her children and their father. This inability to extend compassion to anyone else has caused her to be hateful, and spiteful, and downright petty, and it has all come back to haunt her. It was teaching these values to Joffrey that got him killed. It was her hatred for her other brother Tyrion, ultimately, that got Myrcella killed. It was her childish and petty vendetta against the Tyrells—stemming from her own loss of status—that led to the rise of the Faith Militant and her own public humiliation. She always claims she does everything for her children, but it isn’t true: her motives are more often selfish and self-centered, and her vain and petty machinations have now cost her two of those three children she claims to live for.
The vanity is important, I think. All of Cersei’s recent problems have stemmed from her unwillingness to let go of her own power, which is another way of saying she has resisted facing her own mortality. The passing of power from one generation to the other is one of the things Game of Thrones is about, but Cersei has resisted this passage every step of the way, which means that in a way she has been fighting against the ascendancy of her own children. The witch’s prophecy, which Cersei dreaded all her life, spoke in part of her being usurped by a younger and more beautiful queen. But isn’t that the fate of all queens? “History will be taken from our hands,” Cersei once lamented, when she knew Margaery would be queen. But that’s how history works. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
So once again, in Cersei’s storyline, there is a sense of someone dropping their illusions and coming to terms with the realities of the flesh. With her daughter dead, Cersei remembers her mother’s body, and how she was obsessed with its decomposition: the indignities of rotting and bloating, the horrors of decay. It’s death as the ultimate blow to vanity, and Cersei’s contemplation of the inevitable ravages of time here is a more subtle echo of Melisandre taking off that necklace and contemplating her own ruined body. In contemplating her mother, herself, and her daughter, she is unconsciously invoking the archetypal progression of womanhood represented by three of the gods in the Faith of the Seven: the Maiden, the Mother, the Crone.
And, in contemplating this, Cersei—almost for the first time—is also thinking about goodness. “She was good,” she says of her daughter. “I don’t know where she came from. She was nothing like me. No meanness, no jealousy, just good…I thought if I could make something so good, so pure, maybe I’m not a monster.” It is an encouraging sign that this is where Cersei’s trials have led her: to a recognition of her own monstrosity, and perhaps to a recognition that goodness, compassion, and empathy are what really matter in our short trip from cradle to grave. “You couldn’t have stopped it,” she tells Jaime, of the witch’s prophecy, and if we view the prophecy as largely a promise about the passage of time, this is broadly true: there is no stopping it. But what matters is how you behave along the way.
It is a less encouraging sign that Jaime—who is now two full seasons away from his own humbling in Season Three—has moved backwards in his personal development. “Fuck prophecy, fuck fate, fuck everyone who isn’t us,” he says. “We’re the only ones who matter, the only ones in this world. And everything they’ve taken from us, we’re going to take back, and more. We’re going to take everything there is.” This is a return to Season One’s Jaime, who told Cersei in “Lord Snow” that he would kill everyone in the world, “the whole bloody lot of them, until you and I are the only people left in this world.” And it is an echo of Season One’s Cersei, who in that same episode told her eldest son that “everyone who isn’t us is an enemy.” Cersei may now finally be seeing—even if Jaime is not—that this attitude is the source of all the misery in their lives.
“Seeing a beautiful woman naked for the first time: what is better than that?” — Khal Moro
Meanwhile, Dany has undergone a different sort of humbling. Like Jon Snow, Dany has been one of the chief advocates for compassion and empathy in Game of Thrones, and has faced resistance from the traditional forces of power that wanted to treat human beings as objects. (“Daenerys Targaryen took away their most valuable property,” Tyrion says now. “Told them people weren’t even property to begin with. You can see why they’re upset.”) It is worth noting, however, that lack of compassion has hurt Dany’s cause as well: it was the moment she executed Mossador—refusing the crowd’s calls for mercy—that she began to lose control of Meereen. “Kill the masters,” graffiti in Meereen reads, but beneath that line someone has added “Mhysa is a master.” As Tyrion points out, it seems both the former slaves and the former slavers are upset with Queen Daenerys.
Ironically, what this unrest has led to is that the former Mhysa has become a slave herself. After the most dramatic arc in all of Game of Thrones, Dany has been cast back to where she began: presented as a gift to a Dothraki Khal, Moro (Joseph Naufahu). She has, in terms of our overall theme, been reduced to just a body, as she was back in the beginning. (Remember in the pilot how Viserys coldly assessed her naked body before presenting her as a gift to Khal Drogo?) As she is marched through the plains, bound and whipped like a slave, Dothraki warriors crudely speak of her body, and of what they would do to it. She has been reduced to an object, after fighting to keep herself and everyone else from being reduced to objects all her life. (Gazing upon her, Moro speculates whether there is anything better than seeing a naked woman for the first time, and his bloodriders offer suggestions: killing another khal, breaking a wild horse, conquering a city and taking slaves. Their comparisons are all about domination and dehumanization.)
Dany—as she is prone to do—tries to assert her rights of status by rattling off her titles. “I am Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of Meereen,” et cetera. But it doesn’t work this time: her impressive (and growing) list of honorifics is met only with laughter, and a symbolic stripping of her entire identity. “You are nobody, the millionth of your name, queen of nothing,” Moro tells her in response: she is just an anonymous body, to be used and discarded.
It is interesting that, as Dany plays this hand she’s been dealt, she saves one card for last. “I was wife to Khal Drogo,” she finally admits, and this is the title that saves her. But we sense she doesn’t like having to say it: she has forged her own hardfought identity in the four seasons since Khal Drogo died, and—as much as she loved Drogo—Dany does not like having to define herself now as his property. But that is the only status these men will recognize: she is still an object, but now she is an object that belongs to another.
And it only gets her so far. She will not be raped—and for this I suspect all viewers of Game of Thrones are infinitely relieved—but neither will she be set free to reassume her autonomous identity. She will be sent where all widows of khals must go: to Vaes Dothrak, to take her place among the dosh khaleen. These are the holy women of the Dothraki, the seers and priestesses. In short—and significantly, in terms of the entire episode—she will become a witch. Like Cersei, like Melisandre, she is being forced through the traditional progression of female roles: maiden, mother, crone.
“And I vow you shall always have a place by my hearth…” — Sansa
Finally, this week, I want to touch briefly on another passage between roles: that of Sansa Stark, who transitions from maiden to mother.
Not literally, we hope. (Gods forbid she is carrying Ramsay’s child, though it’s certainly possible.) At the end of last season, we discussed how men co-opt women’s power for their own purposes, and usurp the role of the Mother as a tool of objectification and submission, reducing it to simply a biological function in service of male power. (“Ramsay needs you,” Myranda taunted Sansa. “Though I suppose he doesn’t need all of you: just the parts he’ll use to make his heir.”) And we hear the Boltons, Roose and Ramsay, speaking of Sansa in exactly these terms this week, as nothing more than a broodmare.
All her life, Sansa has been an object of desire, passed from hand to hand, from man to man. She’s been a token, a pawn, a commodity to be traded between men. In the eyes of the world she has been, fundamentally, just a body, with little or no recognition of her individuality or subjectivity. In “Mother’s Mercy” she had finally had enough, and chose to leap perilously from the walls of her childhood home rather than remain an object. “If I’m going to die, let it happen while there’s still some of me left,” she said.
This week she and Theon face being reduced to the ultimate bodily indignity: becoming just food. (“She’s good meat: feed her to the hounds,” Ramsay says of Myranda’s body, and this is the same fate that Theon and Sansa face with the hounds at their heels.) But they are saved by the Mother’s Mercy—literally. Brienne of Tarth, still trying to fulfill the promise she made to Catelyn, arrives just in time to save Sansa and offer her service.
Sansa rejected this offer last season: she was still the maiden then, trusting in a man—in this instance, Littlefinger—to guide her fate. But now Sansa has changed, and she tremulously accepts her new role as a mother and leader. She speaks a variation of the words that Catelyn spoke to Brienne so long ago: “I vow that you shall always have a place by my hearth, and meat and mead at my table,” she says.
This is a significant moment. For one thing, Sansa has never had power, but she assumes power now, making the generational transition by stepping into Catelyn’s role and assuming responsibility. (This is the circle of life, the one Cersei has fought against.) She has been called “Lady Sansa” before, but she truly assumes that role here, as leader of her bedraggled entourage. More significantly, I think, she reclaims the full power of the Mother from the men who tried to take it from her. It is not simply about a biological function: it is—as we’ve discussed before—about compassion, and mercy, and extending the rights of family to those who have been other. Brienne was once a distrusted stranger, but now Sansa has made her belong, and taken her place at the center of a newly forged family.
This, I believe, is what Game of Thrones is ultimately about: the need to extend sympathy to those who are different, to break down the walls that have separated people and the attitudes that have objectified them. It is what Jon Snow tried to do, bringing the Wildings within the protection of the realm. It is what Dany tried to do, breaking down class divisions and setting thousands free from slavery. It is what Ned Stark taught his children it meant to be a leader: “Being a lord is like being a father,” Ned told Robb. “Except you have thousands of children, and you worry about all of them.”
At the moment, admittedly, none of these causes seems to be faring well: Jon is “dead,” Dany is exiled, and Sansa is on the run. But what we are also seeing is new families form around these figures: after several seasons of our heroes in relative isolation, they have begun to find each other—in Meereen, and at the Wall, and in the woods of Winterfell.
No one is ageless, invulnerable, immortal. None of us, as Margaery admits this week, is pure and perfect and uncorrupted. All men must serve and die, the Old Valyrians tell us. All flesh is grass, the Bible tells us. The worm is the only emperor of diet, Shakespeare tells us, and kings and beggars alike end up dishes at the same table. Death is the Great Other, the great leveler who erases all distinctions and divisions. But the characters who understand that people are more than just bodies, more than just objects, have begun to find each other and work together. If there’s any hope for the realm, it lies in them.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- First of all, welcome back to my ongoing and obsessive coverage of Game of Thrones. It’s poor form to have my first review of the season be quite this late, but it couldn’t be helped this week. (Honestly, I’d like to spend a bit longer on this one, and see if I can get these varied themes to coalesce a little better. But I think I’m out of time.) Normally, I’ll shoot for posting new pieces by the Tuesday evening after the episode airs. As always, please bear with me.
- This was perhaps the most plot-heavy season premiere yet, and so I skipped over a lot of stuff. There are echoes of the “body” theme running throughout, from the severe beating blind Arya takes, to the growing decay on Jorah’s arm, to Theon being told “I can’t wait to see what part of you Ramsay cuts away next.” There is also an echo of the theme of descending to the reality of the physical plane in Tyrion’s comments to Varys: “We’re never going to fix what’s wrong with this city from the top of an 800-foot pyramid,” he says: they need to grapple not with the lofty ideals from a high place of privilege, but with the dirty, tactile reality on the ground.
- I also enjoyed the humorous way the compassion/objectification dichotomy was encapsulated in the scene between Tyrion and the beggar woman. “For your baby, to eat,” Tyrion says, in broken Valyrian, as he tries to give the woman a coin. “She thinks you want to eat her baby,” Varys explains, as the woman recoils. (The people are not used to compassion from lords: they are used to having their children treated—figuratively or literally—as meat.)
- Doran, too, represented compassion in opposition to physical violence, both in his person and in his policies. (His own weakened body marked him as no warrior, and he tried to keep his country peaceful and compassionate.) But has any storyline in Game of Thrones been as rushed and wretched as the one in Dorne? Even without comparing the show to the books, the goings-on in Dorne have always felt like an ill-conceived afterthought, and the ridiculously rushed coup that takes place this week is no different. There were interesting things to be done with Dorne as a more civilized, compassionate counterpart to King’s Landing—Oberyn’s point to Cersei that “we don’t hurt little girls in Dorne“—and perhaps even more interesting things to explore in Dorne’s descent from compassion back into violence. But it feels like the show never had the room to do this right, and at this point I’m just hoping Benioff and Weiss manage to drop this entire subplot as completely as they seem to want to do.