After a rousing re-introduction to the land of Westeros last week, Game Of Thrones continues to roll out a number of storylines. This second episode fleshes out several of the new players even as it continues to expand the world of the show. Rather than give a traditional recap, I think discussing the interesting (problematic?) portrayal of women in the show is the way to go this week.
Let’s bitch it out…
Last week our transitions between scenes centered on a clever recurring visual: the red comet, which symbolized different things to different people. In ‘The Night Lands’ the comet is gone, but scene transitions remain as clever as ever. Just like how the show’s opening credits indicate to us where we’ll be visiting, the transitions between shows use both visual and verbal match-ons to tie our disparate characters together. So the scene of Melisandre (Carice van Houten) telling Stannis (Stephen Dillane) that she’ll bear him a son is immediately followed by a scene of Jon Snow (Kit Harington) finding out what Craster (Robert Pugh) does with his male offspring.
If there is one thing this episode has in spades, it’s babies. Or rather talk of babies: making them, killing them, losing them, etc. And all this talk happens in or around sex (which is appropriate…until you hit the sexposition wall and it feels like you’re watching Starz where they occasionally confuse “sex” with “entertainment”). In truth all the talk and depictions of sex in the episode is a bit much for me. Even when it feels appropriate (i.e.: all of Theon Greyjoy’s nekkid/sex scenes which reinforce what a narcissist/nasty piece of work he is), it feels as though naked bodies or talk about raping, f*cking, etc is included simply because it can be*.
*And yes I know that these scenes and conversations are in the book, but it’s a very different experience to visually witness Theon having sex compared to reading about it. Consider whether the scene would still work had they simply been finishing having sex.
Consider this: tonight we have Theon having sex en route to deliver Robb Stark’s message to his father, then he feels up his sister, Yara (Gemma Whelan). The first instance is matched-cut with voyeuristic scenes in Baelish’s (Aiden Gillen) brothel, including a barf-inducing cum-to-french-kiss bit. One of the reasons that pirate Sallahdor Saan (Lucian Msamati) agrees to help sack King’s Landing is because he wants to bed Queen Cersei (Lena Headey). Gendry (Joe Dempsie) goads Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) into confessing she’s a girl with demands that she “whip your cock out and take a piss”. Even Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) gets in a humdinger after eunuch Varys (Conleth Hill) suggests prostitute Shae (Sibel Kekilli) is wasted in the kitchen, quipping “You should taste her fish pie.”
The difference in the representation of women vs men (and sex) has been part of the show since its first season. Some have called it sexism and others have called misogyny. In a piece by The Atlantic, author Scott Meslow opined “There’s something animalistic about the ways in which the men treat women in Game of Thrones in general, and sex is the most obvious signifier”. I believe that he is correct when he suggests that the show may show misogyny, but it is not endorsing it. And that is a key distinction.
By this point we’ve all figured out that the show is about power: getting it, keeping it, killing other people who threaten your access to or retention of it. And in this world, it’s clear that the women don’t overtly have any: they become salt wives to wannabe princes, they are maimed by rich Johns when they do not supply a good “return on investment” or their children are taken from them if they are the “wrong” sex*.
*The fact that Craster only keeps daughters is a nice reversal of traditional gender roles since it suggests that women – to Craster at least – are more desirable. At least until you realize that it is simply because he wants more wives. John Bradley’s Samwell even gets a funny line about this when he asks why Craster isn’t happy with simply two or three wives.
It is clearly intentional that we find this problematic. The sex scenes do much to objectify women, but it is in support of building the canvas of this world. But it can definitely go back and forth. What some may see as character building, can be seen by others as vulgar and unnecessary. Consider Theon’s sex scene on the boat, or even Melisandre’s sex scene with weak-willed Stannis. Both sex scenes are important for what they tell us about these people, but whether or not we needed the nudity…is another question.
Other times, such as the scene with Baelor in the brothel, illustrates not only who the character is, but nicely complements earlier scenes. His conversation about “returns on investment” reflects his role as changepurse to the king. It is also as a subtle reflection of the lesson Cersei taught him last week when they bantered back and forth about knowledge and power. He’s trying to reassert his dominance after getting a strip torn off by the Queen.
It would also be obtuse to think that women don’t have some control over this. Arya may be young, but she remains a firecracker, as her scene with the prisoners in the wagon proves (Side Note: Interesting how one of those prisoners is not like the others. We should be wary of eloquence, especially when surrounded by such blatant stupidity). Arya refuses to be reduced to “milady” by Gendry, not only because she can no longer be a high born lady, but because she never wanted that life. On the flip side, it’s clear that Cersei is unwilling to share her power with Tyrion- and she’s not above reminding him that his existence cost them the life of their mother. This was a nice parallel to what Joffrey’s crown has cost the bastard children who were killed last week, which continues to pay off as Tyrion uses it to ship off a dirty member of the Kingsguard to the Wall.
In the end, it’s fruitless to examine the show in black and white absolutes since George R.R. Martin has no interest in exploring anything except shades of grey. The story is far more interesting when there is no easy answer, and – in truth – no one has it easy in this world. Not the imp, nor the bastard at the Wall, not even the narcissist heir to the Iron Islands who finds himself replaced by his sister. If you want a fascinating portrait of a woman in this world, look no further than Yara Greyjoy. Or, for that matter, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), whose struggle to reclaim her birthright remains one of the most captivating performances on the show, even if she was the most controversial character involved in this discussion in the first season.
- Yay for a touch more incest (get it?)! Yara Greyjoy allows her brother, who doesn’t recognize her since his capture and “imprisonment” with the Starks nine years earlier, to feel her up both above the waist and below it before revealing her identity. Are we meant to find her attitude amusing or completely messed up? It seems like the equivalent of a sibling prank, except that it involves dirty touching. Har har…barf.
- We also meet Theon’s father, Balon Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide) this week. He makes a much stronger impression than any of the new characters we met last week, such as Stannis, Davos or Melisandre, even though his scene mostly just serves to establish him as a dick. This reinforces the show’s particular portrait of fatherly ruling figures; Balon is clearly on par with Tywin Lannister in the “bad, power hungry” father club.
- There’s a better sense of who Davos is this week, although information is being parsed out very casually in conversation. It’s significant that Stannis cut off his fingers which has not affected Davos’ loyalty that the eldest living Barantheon. Davos is one of the least religious characters we’ve met in that he doesn’t believe in deities- he simply believes in Stannis. It’s intriguing to think of how his differing belief will affect his relationship with his more religious son, Mathos (Kerr Logan) as well as the meaning behind Melisandre’s cryptic message about fire.
- The “hot body” award goes to Melisandre. She’s definitely creepy and sexing it up on Stannis’ battle table is a little obvious and pretty unsanitary (it’s like the sex couch in Smash!), but at least this scene doesn’t include some of the strangest looking boobs I’ve ever seen. Those belong to the Captain’s daughter (Amy Dawson) that Theon sclhlups. Hopefully that actress can parlay her notoriety into some kind of cosmetic treatment because those things were nasty (p.s. is that sexist?)
- Finally, any else love the verbal battle of wills between Varys and Tyrion? Thinly veiled threats can be ever so entertaining, but these two really do reinforce how untrustworthy King’s Landing truly is. Paranoia, paranoia, everybody’s coming to get you…
So what did you think viewers? How did you view the portrayal of our female protagonists? Do you find the sex scenes overkill or balanced and important to the series? Sound off in our comments section!
Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9pm EST on HBO.
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Regarding Yara Greyjoy, I think her allowing Theon to touch her flipped the power tables on him. She had a strategy… to let herself be “used” by a “powerful” man and let his shame to be his downfall. She also asserts her power by this. I thought it was an interesting twist in the way women are portrayed and used by this society.