Some Deep Thoughts on Escapism, Monoculture, and ‘Game of Thrones’

“Game of Thrones” became the best, most fulfilling form of escapism any of us could have hoped for.

Screen Shot 2017-08-29 at 11.17.53 PM

I have a lot of thoughts about the season seven finale of Game of Thrones.

I have so many thoughts that it’s taken me way longer than normal to figure out how to put them in a discernible (let alone entertaining) order. I tried doing something pithy and fun, like a listicle of the most “OMGWTF” moments, since there were so many. But even after a second viewing of the episode, that didn’t feel right.

I think that’s because this finale felt momentous in a way no other finale, or even episode, has. The “OMGWTF” parts were affecting, of course. How could we not go batshit over Littlefinger’s death and the Night King riding wight Viserion and collapsing the Wall? I literally screamed. Literally screamed. Several times.

Maybe it was the snow falling on King’s Landing as Jaime rides away from everything he’s ever known. Or the beautiful shot of Theon collapsing on the beach after demonstrating a strength of will he’s never had, full knowing he’s likely going to be giving his life for his sister. Or even Dany and Jon’s roll in the hay. As questionable as it is for this show to really want us to be okay with incest, when looking at them purely as characters that we’ve grown to know and love, they haven’t had a real reason to live for years except to take on the responsibility of saving the world. Laying naked in bed together, they’re almost surprised to remember what affection feels like.

So maybe it was all those things. The few tender, understated moments that remind us that’s what’s made Game of Thrones great all along. But I mostly feel sad about it. I am sad that the season’s over, and that there’s only six episodes left. But it’s not in the fandom kind of a way, where I feel like I’ve invested a lot in these characters and it’ll be hard to leave that all behind. I’m a hardcore J.R.R. Tolkien fan, so I’ve been through the five stages of Your Fandom’s Ending grief with The Lord of the Rings (no, The Hobbits don’t count) and that was years ago. That kind of grief is very personal. It exists within the confines of whatever part of you that attached yourself to this particular story; the part that mourns for the loss of that particular story as an emotional outlet. And what I’m feeling now doesn’t feel like that.

When I really break it down, I’ve been sad for over a year. I’ve been deeply sad ever since it seemed imminent that the person who is currently in the position of the President of the United States could become just that. When I looked around and saw a lapse in judgment and critical thinking for the sake of righteous outrage gaining traction. Where unchecked sexism, racism, and xenophobia became more overt until it became actually dangerous. And then the unthinkable happened, and living in the United States now means living with horrible, daily reminders of what happens when people make decisions based on emotion instead of logic.

I didn’t realize it until the season ended, but Game of Thrones took on a wholly new dimension this year: it became the best, most fulfilling form of escapism any of us could have hoped for. Just by being itself, the show gave us an hour’s length of time each week to forget what was happening around us. And consider all the time taken to discuss every little detail of every plot. And then there were the recaps, and the theories, and the memes. And, for me, spending upwards of seven hours a week writing about it. The events of the last year elevated Game of Thrones from Coolest Dang Show on TV to Temporary Amnesia for Your Real Life.

I’m sad because there is now a Game of Thrones-sized escapism hole in the entertainment I intake, and there’s nothing on the horizon to fill it. If Mark Harris’ predictions are right, we’re in for a lot of on-the-nose commentary about our nation’s current sociopolitical climate. In the case of the newest season of American Horror Story, it’ll be heavy handed: the season is reportedly about clowns, bees, and the 2016 presidential election. Yikes. In the case of the newest season of Black Mirror, the dystopia may be too real to bear. The Waldo Moment actually happened. As outlined in a piece from Salon, Black Mirror originally “arrived to reveal the often unseen monsters lying just beneath the surface of the connected, seamless future Silicon Valley and the technocrats surrounding Obama had sold us.” Now, “we live with those monsters every day.”

I’m sad because it feels like Game of Thrones is the one unifier we all have left, and it’s almost gone. An HBO record of twelve million people watched the season seven finale, and there’s no way they all vote like I do. Sure, there’s the Super Bowl, which reliably pulls in over 100 million viewers. But it’s more likely that the vast majority tuning in celebrates the Super Bowl like I do: as an excuse to invite friends over to eat bad-for-us food and drink too much on a Sunday, and mostly just pay attention to the commercials and the halftime show.

Game of Thrones feels like the last bastion of cultural consensus this country has, and one that also deals with complex social and political issues. We can all agree that a hurricane slamming east Texas is horrible, but a natural disaster doesn’t require us to choose sides. It doesn’t require all those who see it to determine the value of loyalty. It doesn’t ask to consider the larger implications of Jon’s speech, that “when enough people make false promises, words stop meaning anything. Then there are no more answers, only better and better lies.”

As it happens, the day Kit Harrington delivered that speech was November 9th, 2016.

But do they, the other person that supports someone I utterly despise, think of these characters the same way I do? Is Cersei the villain for them? Is the Hound sympathetic? Were they uplifted in the same way I was when we find out that Arya and Sansa worked together? How is it possible that they feel the same empathy I feel, when they support people and policies that treat the cripples, bastards, and broken things of this world with disdain?

I’ve never been a patriotic person. I don’t care about seeing the people of this country come together necessarily, other than on a Sunday night in front of the TV. And I certainly don’t think that Game of Thrones is going to suddenly make someone with a dumb red hat listen to someone like me. But to face the reality that soon we won’t have at least one thing that we can agree on does make me sad. It’s another reminder of how far removed we are from one another. But there is something perversely comforting, and very confusing, in the idea that that red-hatted person also considers Ned Stark to be the pinnacle of honor.

We have some time. The last season of Game of Thrones might not come until 2019. Maybe the wheel will break in the meantime. Now that season seven’s over, the best I have for forgetting about the world’s problems is the twenty minutes I spend playing Solitaire on the elliptical three times a week. That’ll have to do, at least until next season. Anyone know any good books?

Tyrion and Daenerys Have a Conversation: An Unnecessarily In-Depth ‘Game of Thrones’ Scene Study

Not to undermine the badassness of the second half of that episode, but an equally as thrilling, if not substantially more quiet, scene also took place: Tyrion and Daenerys had a chance to talk.

There’s little argument the recent Game of Thrones episode, “Hardhome,” was the best of the season (at least up until the most recent episode, but that’s for a different time.) The seven episodes leading up to it, however, bordered on tedious. They mainly consisted of establishing plot lines, people traveling, and scant bits of action; all of which hardly satisfied the rabid viewer that has become used to a certain level of excitement on this show. The seven episode build of tension finally broke in episode eight with the culmination of the battle (massacre?) at the Wildling village of Hardhome. Unlike “The Watchers on the Wall” in season four, which was solely dedicated to the tremendous battle of the Night’s Watch against the Wildlings, “Hardhome” was such a surprise that it stole the show and it became all that the Internet talked about the next day.

Not to undermine the badassness of the second half of that episode, but an equally as thrilling, if not substantially more quiet, scene also took place: Tyrion and Daenerys had a chance to talk. Here are two of Game of Thrones‘ most significant characters, who up until now had no reason to be in the same room, bringing each of their uniquely specialized backgrounds to the table. They’ve never met before, but they already know each other, if not partially, because they already know each other’s respective biographies (and reputations). Though their conversation was quite the momentous occasion, it had no alternative but to be overshadowed by the battle that took place after their meeting. So while I have already written a recap for the whole of the episode, it’s only fair to give Tyrion and Danaerys’ scene its proper due, and analyze the hell out of it.

It didn’t start out very friendly. Daenerys has Tyrion and Jorah supplicate before her and argue the reasons why she shouldn’t have them killed, particularly Tyrion in retribution for what his family did to hers. Tyrion reminds her, however, that he killed both of his parents, so really he’s his own family’s best assassin. She quips, “So I should welcome you into my service because you murdered members of your own family?”

If Tyrion wasn’t the first person to use reverse psychology, he’s certainly mastered it better than anyone in the history of ever, because he combats her skepticism with, “It’s too soon to say if you are worthy of my service.” Dany plays hard to get, but she’s also never been one to turn down a verbal sparring match, and reminds him she can send him back to the fighting pits at any moment. Tyrion proceeds to recount the tale of a girl born without wealth, lands, or an army, growing up in a world that hated her, forced to live on the run because of her name. Ultimately, this girl born with nothing, “in a very short span of time,” acquired all three things she was born without, as well as three dragons. “I thought you were worth meeting at the very least,” he says.

Since the show’s inception, Game of Thrones has exceled at the task of packing a ridiculous amount of people and plots and histories into each of its episodes while still somehow managing to maintain its overarching purpose. It’s an admirable skill, but sometimes buried beneath all of that packing are truths that have no time to come to the surface. Namely: how absolutely and utterly goddamn impressive Daenerys is. Though we watched the majority of Tyrion’s anecdote from the start of the show, it wasn’t until he put it in that context that I truly realized how far she’s come. The relentless nature of Game of Thrones could never allow Daenerys the opportunity for retrospection, or even a small moment for her to appreciate her own achievements. She’s been on a mission from the beginning, and her determination won’t end until that mission is complete. You go, girl.

She’s flattered by Tyrion’s recounting of her life, but of course she’d never show it, and insists he convince her why he was worth meeting. Tyrion’s time as the Hand of the King made him realize something he never knew about himself: he’s good at something other than drinking. His whole life he had been underestimated and underappreciated (and also constantly in the shadow of his dashing older brother), and his reaction to those things was to get very good at thinking. His regal upbringing exposed him to the politics of war (and warring royal families), and that background is exactly what Daenerys never knew she needed. His gift of rhetoric and talent for strategy frame his first piece of advice for Daenerys: “Killing and politics aren’t always the same thing.” Surely she’s thought of that before, but considering her reign began amongst the consistently violent Dothraki, perhaps violence was what came most naturally to her as a queen. One could never call Daenerys unjust, but maybe she’s just a tad hasty.

Sufficiently convinced for the time being, Daenerys puts Tyrion’s advisement skills to the test and asks him what to do about Jorah. She did, after all, swear to kill him if he ever came back to Meereen. Though Tyrion points out that Jorah is utterly devoted to her (and probably definitely in love with her), and that “a ruler who kills those devoted to her is not a ruler who inspires devotion,” he still maintains that she shouldn’t keep him around.

For as much as I find Tyrion and Daenerys’ interactions in this episode some of the best dialogue in this entire series, his recommendation to send Jorah away is still one that I don’t quite understand. The circumstances lend themselves to the notion that he’s acting selfishly; that if Jorah stays he may become Daenerys’ adviser again, and Tyrion’s status, and therefore his safety, could be in jeopardy. But that didn’t seem to be his intention. His recommendation for when Daenerys crosses the Narrow Sea “you cannot have him by your side when you do.” The emphasis of this line seemed to stress that Jorah’s presence could make her look weak if she did indeed allow a man she swore to kill come back into her council. More than anything, the weakness comes in Jorah’s banishment itself. But off he goes anyway, the greyscale slowly eating away at his forearm. He glances forebodingly up at the destroyed faces of the Harpy statues before returning to the fighting pits to become a slave again and fight for Daenerys. He’s a dead man, no matter what happens.

Tyrion’s savvy with wordplay has aided him once again, and he graduates from being on trial to conversing one-on-one with the queen. Satisfied with his first glass of wine in a very long time (by Tyrion’s standards, anyway), he and Daenerys engage in a verbal barrage of wit and candor, brimming with the implications of several generations of familial conflict.

Other than the obvious significance of having Tyrion and Daenerys in the same room, there’s something so refreshing in having these two characters together. Neither of them talk in riddles or metaphors or soliloquies laden with deception like 98% of the characters on this show. They say exactly what they mean all the time, if not a bit strategically when the need arises. So without all of the fluff and ulterior motives, these two are free to be completely candid with each other. Beginning with questions like, “Have you decided yet whether you’re going to have me killed?”

When Daenerys responds that killing him is (in theory) her safest option, Tyrion responds, “It’s what your father would’ve done.” And, of course, it’s what Tywin would’ve done too, since he was trying to kill Tyrion throughout the entirety of season four. Their respective fathers were some of the most influential in the Game of Thrones storyline, and have heavily influenced the behavior and actions of their children. Tywin’s influence manifested itself in Tyrion’s aforementioned critical thought development, and though Daenerys never knew her father, his reputation has likely determined her royal ethos.

Daenerys admits to Tyrion that she knows what her father was: “I know the Mad King earned his name.” I’m not sure when she found out about Aerys’ reign, and I can’t remember if she’s mentioned him on the show before, but that admission says it all: somewhere between being sold off to Khal Drogo by Varys and becoming queen, she decided she was going to be more rational than her father and more humble than her brother. (Even if she displays a little bit of irrationality and arrogance now and then. She is still a Targaryen, after all.)

So here they are. “Two terrible children of two terrible fathers,” as Tyrion puts it. Daenerys reproaches that observation with, “I’m terrible?” (There’s that classic Targaryen arrogance.) But not just any kind of terrible brought Tyrion to Daenerys, but he “wanted to see if you were the right kind of terrible.” And doesn’t that just summarize the whole show? There are very few, if any, characters on this show who haven’t had a terrible moment, with the exception of those too young to know what being terrible entails. So ruthless is the world in which these characters exist, that anyone would be dead without a least one terrible moment here or there. The only way to stay alive and thriving in this world is to be the right kind of terrible.

Tyrion is looking for the kind of terrible that prevents the world from “being even more so.” He applauds Daenerys’ decision to marry someone from Meereen’s great houses and her concession to reopen the fighting pits; doing so means that she’s allowed for the betterment of her people to supersede her own desires. However reluctant she may have been (and however pointless it all ended up, because Sons of the Harpy), Daenerys showed that the needs of the greater are more important than those of the few. The foresight is admirable, at the very least.

Tyrion’s mention of Varys, and how he may have been right about Daenerys, could’ve sent her over the edge if it weren’t for her growing trust in her new friend. Varys was the person Jorah was sending her secrets to, and thus the person that made Jorah betray her. You can’t blame her for being dubious of Tyrion’s faith in him, but Tyrion gives the Spider the benefit of the doubt: “he did what he had to do to survive,” and points out that Varys’ actions were likely the reason Daenerys wasn’t killed as a child. Furthermore, Tyrion says that Varys may be the only person in the world that he trusts, except for his brother. “The brother who killed my father?” Daenerys clarifies, reminding us how deep their shared history runs.

She tries once more to shake Tyrion’s resolve by saying, “Perhaps I will have you killed, after all.” But Tyrion is unshakable, particularly so after several glasses of wine, and says if she does kill him, at least his final days were interesting. Ever the optimist.

But finally, Daenerys decides she’s not going to kill Tyrion. “No? Banish me?” he asks, letting his underlying fear peek through for a moment. No, she’s going to have him advise her… “while you can still speak in complete sentences,” she jabs, and pries the goblet from his hand. It’s a hard, but logical, price to pay for sparing his life.

The now wineless Tyrion asks her on what he’s going to advise her. “How to get what I want,” Daenerys replies, and what she wants is what everyone wants: the Iron Throne. Tyrion’s first piece of advice for her is to want something else. After all, “there’s more to the world than Westeros,” and things are devolving into chaos pretty quickly over there, though she doesn’t know it. But Daenerys’ ambition for ridding the world of slavery and cruelty doesn’t stop in Meereen, and she wants to bring that ambition with her across the Narrow Sea.

Tyrion is quick to point out that she has few supporters in Westeros, particularly supporters with money. She assumes, not unjustly, considering her experience, that the common people will be enough to bolster her position to queen in King’s Landing. Tyrion reminds her that it is only the common people that support her in Meereen. “What was that like? Ruling without the rich?” he asks. Well, a militant group of the rich and former slave masters behind gold masks are killing a lot of people. He insists that she will need the support of the rich if she’s going to rule.

Tyrion runs through the list of Houses in Westeros and paints a grim picture: the Targaryens are gone, the Starks are gone, the Lannisters will never support her (“not ever.”), Stannis’ “entire claim to the throne rests on the illegitimacy” of Daenerys’. All she’d have left is House Tyrell, and though “not impossible, not enough.” There are not enough rich people to support her if she should ever return to Westeros.

And if Tyrion’s “right kind of terrible” is indicative of the characters in Game of Thrones, Daenerys’ analogy to the Houses of Westeros as spokes on a wheel is demonstrative of the entire plot: “This one’s on top, then that one’s on top. Round and round it spins, crushing those beneath it.” These families and more (Martell, Bolton, Greyjoy) play their game with no concern of how it affects the majority of the population, which happens to be the antithesis of everything Daenerys has worked for during her rule. And thus, she doesn’t just want to stop the wheel, she wants to “break the wheel.” It’s a worthy goal, and the most logical one, since when does the wheel stop even if she were to get to the Iron Throne without breaking it? Someone else with misguided aspirations of being the ruler of Westeros will probably try to dethrone Daenerys eventually. So we have the what she wants to do, but exactly how she is going to do it is something for a different episode, and likely a different season altogether.

With the meeting of these two great orators, Game of Thrones has graduated from a show that generated excitement in ruthless violence to one that pursues stimulation in the development of its characters. Both Tyrion and Daenerys exhibit characteristics worthy of their last names, but have cultivated the better parts of those to develop personalities that are strong, but inherently good. Their goals are the same and their alliance will likely bring justice and (hopefully, eventually) peace into the world. The real battle of this episode may have been at Hardhome, but the best battle happened in a quiet room in Meereen.