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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Static Thoughts - Game of Thrones Season 6

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Edited by Robert Beach

And so another season of Game of Thrones comes to a close. In this year’s latest installment of everybody’s favorite fantasy soap opera, we learned secret origins, saw shocking resurrections, epic battles, and the demise of somewhere around half the remaining cast. While I came down very hard on season 5, I'm more inclined towards leniency on season 6. There are still problems, astronomical problems (if we’re being honest), but for the most part, I’ve more or less come to terms with the show Games of Thrones wants to be as we start the long slow march towards the final 15 episodes. 

Every work of art must be judged on some level by the intent of its creation, and it’s become fairly obvious that Game of Thrones just isn’t intended as a complex, character-driven thriller the way it was when the series started. Instead, the show has adopted a new identity that of shallow ‘girl power’ fantasy. I maintain that the show is broken in a lot of fundamental ways, but it does succeed on its own terms as being a power fantasy. 

Season Summary

If you need the recap, this season saw Jon Snow’s return to life after season 5’s cliffhanger followed by a reunion with his sister Sansa. Together with Jon’s wildling allies, the remnants of Stannis’ force, the last minute intervention of Little Finger’s knights of the Vale, and the break-out new character Lyanna Mormont, they were able to retake Winterfell and kill Ramsay Bolton (hands down the show’s worst character). Meanwhile, Daenerys, along with her assembled legions of Dothraki, Unsullied, and dragons, shattered the remaining Masters of Slaver’s Bay before launching for Westeros on a new great fleet. 

Dany’s forces were also joined by Theon and Yara Greyjoy after their uncle, the Crow’s Eye, killed their father and drove them from the Iron Islands. Arya learned to alter her face at will and returned to Westeros to kill Walder Frey while her uncle the Black Fish was cut down at Riverrun.  Finally, Cersei enacted brutal revenge on the religious forces of the High Sparrow by blowing up the Sept of Baelor, killing the High Sparrow along with Margaery and her brother and father and Kevan Lannister, the current hand of the king. It was such a brutal and destructive cleansing it led King Tommen to commit suicide, resulting in Cersei being named acting queen.  

That’s a lot to break down, and I’ll get to the whole issue of being a power fantasy in a bit. Let’s start with the really good stuff. One of Game of Thrones core functions at this point is in setting up big, sweeping battle scenes, and it pays off very well this season. 

The traditional 9th episode blowout was a great double battle showcase this year with Dany’s dragons laying waste to the slaver fleet (a great work of CGI), and the battle of the bastards a standout recreation of medieval land and cavalry combat. Seriously, the visualization of brutal, realistic combat within the Battle of the Bastards episode between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton’s forces is one of the best recreations of archaic warfare ever put to screen. 

Additionally, the final episode twist of Cersei’s destruction of the faith is a bold and impactful sequence and instantly catapults her to the most engaging and fascinating character on the show. 

Cersei has always been an underappreciated character on Game of Thrones. Cersei is every bit as complex as a lot of the bigger favorites, but she’s often looked over because she didn’t have the outward power to make for big showy moments. These actions do take her in a more simplistic direction. This season swaps out her subtle machinations, muted egomania, and devotion to her children for an out-and-out megalomania and a bunch of dead kids to drive her thirst for vengeance. They also afford her a level of outward ambition and power she’s never really had before. 

Previously, Cersei’s power always came from subtle manipulations born from her sexuality and her role as Queen Mother. Now she essentially became a power mad dictator, which is shockingly rare for women super villains (Editor’s Note: unless you’re Lena Headey). I think that is what I like most about this new Cersei: the fact that she is such a supervillain, complete with doomsday weapons, a castle, and her own monstrous henchmen. 

This comes from how rare it is to see a woman slotted into a big super villain role like that of Loki or Dr. Doom. Mainly, it’s because the show actively realized Cersei is evil. Understanding the fact that she is such an awful person and not trying to hide it makes her a much more interesting character than if the show was still trying to hide her terribleness behind a veil of good qualities. 

This is a good example of how a power fantasy can be extended to include our worst impulses and the fantasy of being able to be as awful as we please without real consequence. That’s one of the core things that makes the concept of ‘fantasy’ so versatile. It doesn’t requires to be upright, moral, or pure for us to like them, simply powerful.  

This brings me nicely to the show’s downsides this season, which is pretty much the same downside as last season: Daenerys Targaryen. Somewhere around season 4, Game of Thrones became very confused about how Dany was meant to work within the show and have never really recovered in my view. Much like Cersei, Dany is meant as a power fantasy.  

Unlike Cersei, Dany is meant to be a pure and perfect hero that we should regard as heaven sent and incapable of wrongdoing, which is incredibly tedious and boring. The show has been pushing the idea of Dany as a savior for so long they’ve managed to sand off all the flaws that made her interesting as well as any semblance of struggle. 

Her actions never have a downside, and she’s almost never faced with a problem she can’t solve in the space of an episode. Whether it’s escaping the Dothraki or ending slavery, there are no obstacles or mistakes where she’s concerned. It’s so boring. 

I understand Dany is meant to be a fantasy of pure good and extreme power, extending goodness to the world around; however, she’s been so sanitized there’s nothing to define her identity other than a moral code. Compare that to say Supergirl, another fantasy of pure good and extreme power, she’s allowed to make mistakes, get involved in messy situations, and had desires beyond her moral identity and is a lot more interesting as a hero.  

Really though, Supergirl isn’t the best analog of Daenerys. The best comparison point would be Batman. Dany and Batman are both instances of characters with an inexhaustible supply of resources and a pure moral code placed in a world where chaos and evil are the natural state of reality. Given their power, both heroes are constantly endeavoring to take control of their world to force it to a state of order and goodness. 

Another big similarity is that both characters can easily become jingoistic monsters when done poorly. If you’re not on board with the power fantasy, they’re meant to convey it’s easy to poke holes in their methodology. For instance, without any real acknowledgment of her flaws, Dany’s story becomes “white woman teaches brown people how to be civilized” much the same way Batman without Bruce Wayne’s financial activism is just a rich jerk beating up the poor and mental ill. 

That’s part of why I find Dany’s shift from flawed-but-optimistic hero to conquering goddess such a strange and alienating transition. The show has become unable to acknowledge her flaws in any way, and they’re only getting bigger. Just this season we see Dany destroy the seat of Dothraki culture, burning the heart of their society to the ground; those are the actions of a villain, but the show presents them without a hint of awareness. 

The show has gone from presenting us with a complex vision of Dany’s actions that suggests her good was positive. Limited by her savior complex, it keeps her from realizing the full extent of things to embrace her every act as one of absolute good and heroism. 

For instance, the season ended with Dany giving her former subjects democracy enforced by a team of mercenaries that she left behind. This is obviously a terrible decision and will quickly deteriorate into mob rule, much as it already did early in the show when she allowed democracy to reign. It’s still treated like a happy ending for the free cities.  

That’s Game of Thrones’ worst element: the way it takes acts that it tries to pretend bland or awful characters are actually great heroes. That’s why folks like the Sand Snakes are so insufferable because their whole ethos is “we should murder innocent children with impunity.” The show seems bizarrely convinced they’re strong women we should view as powerful heroes. It’s a simplistic outlook that tinges a lot of what should be the show’s best moments.  

For instance, the ultimate fate of Ramsay Bolton is undercut by how basic his entire existence was. He wasn’t a brief annoyance from a previous time like Viserys in season 1 or a necessary roadblock like Joffrey, who served a purpose to the narrative outside of abject cruelty. The only reason the show was so jammed full of Ramsay Bolton was to set him up as a hated and terrible character for the show to kill off for easy catharsis points. 

It’s the same set-up as the Hostel movies use with their characters. While it’s still enjoyable to see him killed, it’s not a satisfyingly ironic end; it’s a sigh of relief that a dragging annoyance is removed from the show. That stuff punctuates way too much of the show now: strained attempts to create the visceral catharsis that used to come so easily. 

And yet, I will freely admit my growing disinterest with Game of Thrones’ takedown set-ups could be because the show is switching in terms of who the intended fantasy is for. Cersei’s mad takeover or Lyanna Mormont’s kick-ass attitude are pretty universal. Characters like Yara, Dany, and even the Sand Snakes (to an extent) are a much more female-oriented approach to power fantasies. 

This ties back to the Batman comparison I mentioned earlier. People who aren’t innately drawn in by the fantasy of Batman tend to be the harshest on the character. I’m not saying that’s unwarranted, just they’re coming at the concept from a point beyond the reach of the power fantasy. And it starts to feel a lot like that’s where I am with Game of Thrones. It’s something that’s not being made for me. While there are elements I like, I’m more inclined to come down on flaws because I don’t have the forgiveness generated by a personal connection to the fantasy at hand. 

The best outside example I can give of this would be Independence Day. In the lead up to Independence Day: Resurgence, the net was inundated with lame think pieces snidely ripping the original film apart for its many flaws. It was all so much “Monday Morning Quarterbacking,” but it also missed the entire point of the love Independence Day has from its many fans, which is, yes, it’s a bad movie, but it’s a great fantasy. It’s a fantasy of a world united rather than divided. The fantasy of a simpler time of youth for the people who saw it as kids. That’s the thing that makes it great and beloved. No amount of languid put downs or well-reasoned critiques can undo those elements. 

If if the fantasy of power and freedom informing a lot of the characters speak to you than what you’re engaging with is that connection rather than the nuts and bolts of the art itself. So it doesn’t matter if Yara is an incredibly simplistic character or if Dany’s dragons rendered her functionally unstoppable; the things I perceive as flaws either aren’t part of or serve to enhance that connection. That’s why I like to say that a story doesn’t need to be good for you to love it. You just need to love it. 

That’s the philosophy behind so much of nerd ephemera from huge swaths of the comics medium to the preponderance of video game plots and every Godzilla film ever made. It even ties into the new Ghostbusters film. It’s clearly made for a broad audience with an eye towards young girls rather than 30-something fans. So even though I’m disappointed to find the show drifting from my interests in these episodes, I definitely get why its ratings are better than ever and suspect things will only grow as we go into the final seasons. 

Oh, yeah, also Bran mucked about, and Ian McShane had an extended cameo; both of those plots were exceedingly useless as stories and in terms of fantasy wish fulfillment. No excuses there. 

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