Kissed By Fire: Game of Thrones S03E05 (Review)

Maisie Williams rips our hearts out and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau gives the performance of his career in an episode that delivers three of A Song of Ice and Fire’s most titanic scenes (The bath scene, the cave scene and Sandor Clegane versus Beric Dondarrion), interspersed with beautifully-acted smaller scenes from the capital and from Essos; events at Dragonstone only prevented from boring us to death (no surprises there) by two new additions to an already considerable cast.

As Lord Beric and the Hound clash at each other with greater savagery than even the most imaginative fan could ever have conceived of, the former’s burning sword a kind of roaring, barely-contained wildness in comparison with the torches burning bright in the semi-subterranean setting, the little girl on the sidelines watches as intently as though she were the one wielding it. It goes deeper than that, however: that sword is her. She put it there. It’s her anger, and her will, a desire for revenge and for justice (more one than the other) and to see that for once, just once, an evil act is punished. In this scene, the bloodlust and tears in the eyes of Maisie Williams’ Arya as she screams ‘Kill him!’ are at once horrifying and beautiful, as is her reaction when the Hound wins and she has to be restrained by a lightning-quick Gendry before she tries to kill Sandor herself, her awful scream ‘Burn in hell!’ seeming to rend the air, before she’s a little girl again, mutinous, but powerless to do anything. It’s in her quieter moments, however, that Williams really excels in this episode, exemplified by a heartrending scene in which she learns that Gendry plans to join the Brotherhood rather than stay on with her when she eventually finds Robb and Cat. Joe Dempsie finally gets a chance to unleash his usually quiet but commanding screen presence in this scene, and this works symbiotically with Gendry’s character as we see things from his most basic emotional level for the very first time: ‘these men, they’re a family. I’ve never had a family.’ Arya’s reply of ‘I can be your family,’ almost made me weep. By the time ‘you wouldn’t be my family. You’d be m’lady,’ came along, I was bawling. The sadness and abandonment on Arya’s face in this scene is gorgeous; all the repression of affection and emotional ties that characterised her parting with Hot Pie shattered.
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When she later speaks with Lord Beric about his six resurrections, it would be hard to imagine a person more alone and more horrifyingly convinced of the fact, and though she doesn’t meet his eyes, it’s a look of complete identification and understanding on her tear-stained face as Lord Beric asserts that each time you come back, bits of you keep getting left behind. This is Arya’s condition, and her tragedy. Everyone always leaves, and takes part of her away with them; what’s left of her dying again and again each time she takes a name or a life. Her question ‘could you bring back a man without a head? Not six times, but once,’ expresses her longing to go back to the family that was; to be a part of something; not to be drifting. This is Maisie Williams’ finest episode yet, and something tells me she’s going to keep getting better.

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Something that definitely needs to get better is the state of affairs between Jon and Ygritte. The chemistry between Kit Harington and Rose Leslie has deflated considerably since last season, and is in dire need of a bit of rescuing. One would think that the cave scene, the sex scene of the saga, would be the ideal opportunity for this. It’s breathlessly racy, moving and adorable. It’s about two people from two different worlds who’ve slept together countless times, but who find some extremely primal common ground: the blood of the First Men, and each other’s bodies. Having sex in this way is important for their relationship. So why, WHY make it their first time (the whole reason it’s moving in the first place is because it isn’t their first time) and then show us next to nothing of the actual fucking? Modesty? Because fading to black makes it more personal? Dear me, Mr. Holmes, dear me. These possibilities do not convince us much. Furthermore, we simply haven’t seen enough of them together for us to be remotely convinced by Ygritte’s assertion that ‘I don’t ever want to leave this cave, Jon Snow.’ Where did that come from? Where have we ever been seized by the feeling that the Jon and Ygritte of the show are linked by something that binds them together so deeply that it almost transcends death, as the Jon and Ygritte of the books are? This whole absurd situation is simultaneously too much and too little, far too soon. Her Ladyship is not amused.

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Fortunately, this imbecilic bungling of one great scene is repaid a thousand fold in the coin of greatness by Jaime and Brienne’s bath scene. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is exquisite, every inch the ‘half a corpse and half a god’ of the books. For much of the scene, he hardly seems to be present at all, his face and voice seeming to plunge deep into Jaime’s soul and to relive the fear and the horror that he froze inside himself during the Mad King’s reign. It’s soul-destroying to watch him, and impossible to tear your gaze away. The sense of injustice and bitterness that he feels at being called ‘Kingslayer’ when he should be a hero, and that he conceals beneath his habitual wisecracks and sarcasm runs raw and unchecked in all its pathos and razor-sharp humanity. Most of his armour is gone, taken from him in the cruelest way possible; and for reasons that he doesn’t understand himself, it’s for Brienne, as much as for himself, that he strips away the ruins that are left. And it hurts. In the space of those five minutes, Coster-Waldau transforms Jaime from a punchable overconfident snob that you almost feel guilty for pitying into one of the saga’s most complex and hurtfully misunderstood characters. As he collapses into Brienne’s arms and murmurs ‘Jaime. My name is Jaime,’ their relationship progresses beyond chemistry and becomes a connection that will mark them for the rest of their lives, each having seen and felt for the other at their most vulnerable.

At Riverrun, Lord Karstark has finally achieved ‘revenge’ for the murder of his son by murdering Tywin Lannister’s two little nephews, who were being held at Riverrun as hostages. Their murder is short, brutal and horribly to the point, and is not shown to be anything other than the atrocity it is, an effective if disturbing way of portraying it. Lord Karstark is subsequently sentenced to death, and is executed by Robb in the old manner, the scene not quite as reminiscent of the beheading scene in season 1 that it was no doubt meant to be. Richard Madden has managed to recover some of the kingly charisma that he lacked the last time we ran into him, but alas, this doesn’t achieve much. The role is too big for him. When the Karstarks predictably desert, and he sits desperately trying to think how to recover the loss of half of his forces, we don’t see an extremely young man, brilliant at what he does, facing defeat for the first time. We see the last act of Macbeth acted out by a seventeen year old who is in about the middle of his drama class. He is also seized by the stupendously dumb idea that his next move should be to attack Casterly Rock. Seriously. Seriously? Fortunately, both the book and our natural assumption that Robb isn’t a nutcase are not completely destroyed, as he realises that the only way to repair his broken army is to once again get into bed with House Frey, something that will send chills down the spines of fans, as this is the season’s first reference to the Red Wedding. Let us hope the build-up will be more spectacular than Richard Madden’s acting.

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Further south, in King’s Landing, the Tyrells’ plan to marry Sansa to Loras has been blown wide-open (well, as wide-open as things can get in a city of whispers). Not only do we learn that Loras is fully aware of this plan, a notion that we briefly entertained last week, but that his new lover, with whom he mercifully boasts better chemistry than the limp-salmon-bonking-a-haddock texture that characterised his relationship with Renly, is a spy in Littlefinger’s employ. This puts Littlefinger into a quietly-volcanic rage, as it throws a spanner in the works of his intention to take Sansa with him when he leaves for the Vale, a position that Varys and Olenna believe he will exploit by marrying the girl and thereby securing her claim to Winterfell. This leads to a small but brilliantly-acted scene between Littlefinger and Sansa that smolders with emotional undercurrents, in which Sansa, sporting a most unbecoming hairstyle, sweetly informs Lord Baelish that she would rather not leave the capital at present for fear that something may happen to him if the plan were discovered. Littlefinger gracefully concedes, declaring himself touched by her concern, though one can’t help but be reminded of Varys’ assertion that ‘Littlefinger is the most dangerous man in Westeros’ by the look in his eyes and the tone of his voice that expresses both anger and barely-suppressed desire. It’s thrillingly creepy. Once Littlefinger has planted a gallant kiss on Sansa’s hand and left her, she exhales like someone who has just experienced a huge rush of adrenaline. Little Sansa is learning to play the Game. Early, and without Littlefinger’s help. This is a welcome change from the book, which requires Sansa to be shut up in the Eyrie for months before she begins to ‘understand the way this Game is played,’ and will hopefully encourage Sansa haters to be quiet for a little while at least. Regrettably, Sansa’s first foray into the Game is short-lived.  Littlefinger runs straight to Tywin Lannister, who calls Tyrion and Cersei together in the episode’s formidable final scene and orders the aversion of a complete Tyrell takeover by marrying Sansa to Tyrion and Cersei to Loras Tyrell (now there’s a weird change to the book for you. Hm). Peter Dinklage has been scandalously under-used this season, and let’s hope that this will allow us to see more of him. Tyrion reacts to the news by accusing Tywin of pitiless cruelty in allowing Joffrey to torment Sansa for years and then ‘giving her to me,’ just when she has seen a ray of hope on the horizon; a reaction that is so noble and self-abasing that you want to hit him, then hug him. Dinklage shows us that above all things, even his intelligence, Tyrion is a kind man, so compassionate that someday it might kill him, and Tywin’s callous responses to this only push Tyrion closer to the day he’ll take his father’s life.

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Cersei is equally despicable, reveling in Tyrion’s misery until informed that she’ll be forced to share it. Tywin has put Cersei into a similar position to Sansa: crushing her just when she thought there was hope; in Cersei’s case, hope that she would able to live without being chained to a husband. It is perhaps for this reason that her initial anger wears off extremely quickly and she assumes the air of a scolded and sincerely terrified young girl: ‘Father. Don’t make me do this. Please.’ Lena Headey plays this rapid swing in the status quo both of power and of her family in an intensely sympathetic and intelligent way, and the mere fact that she is capable of making an audience feel sorry for Cersei at this point is proof of a great mastery of her craft. Charles Dance is extraordinary as always: chilling and unspeakably cruel, all the traces of humanity that Arya so successfully managed to bring out last season noticeably absent.

Meanwhile, in less intriguing scenes, Daenerys’ mesmerising first meeting with Grey Worm and the latter’s heartwarming decision to maintain his name because ‘Grey Worm is the name this one had the day Daenerys Stormborn set him free’ is spoilt by a lot of boring and over-long bickering between Ser Jorah and Ser Barristan that makes you want to tear your hair out. We also (regrettably) travel to Dragonstone, a castle whose very walls seem to possess a soporific effect, where we meet Stannis Baratheon’s wife Selyse (Tara Fitzgerald). Fitzgerald is perfect for the role, her eyes shining with all the mania and devotion of the religious fanatic, though I was displeased with her display of her stillborn babies in jars, a gratuitously disgusting deviation from the book that seems to serve no purpose other than to be gratuitously disgusting.

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We also meet Shireen (Kerry Ingram), Stannis’ young daughter. Disfigured by greyscale at an early age, she is devastatingly sweet and compassionate, and the scene in the castle dungeons in which she attempts to teach the incarcerated Ser Davos to read is delightful; making us hope that Dragonstone may be a less tedious place to visit in the future.

This season of Game of Thrones continues to be incredibly strong in writing and in acting, despite the ever-present issue of there being too much to tell in too little time and the occasional inexplicable stuff-up.

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What Arya would have done in Sansa’s place: being the ramblings of a young lady who adores both Stark girls and is rather sick of the above notion being used to favour one at the expense of the other.

Let us imagine for a moment that Arya hadn’t been so fortunate as to be picked up by Yoren at Ned Stark’s execution (well, how fortunate this event actually was is debatable). What if she’d been taken by the Hound instead, or denounced by someone in the crowd, or even recognised by Joffrey, who is unlikely to forget her face as long as he lives? She’d end up back in the Red Keep (she’d kick, scream and inflict multiple injuries, but she’d still be powerless and in a state of shock) and very likely be locked up on the other side of the castle from Sansa and kept apart from her, if we know Cersei at all. Once the door is bolted behind her, she would be in exactly the same situation as Sansa. True, she wouldn’t be engaged to marry dear King Joff, but as a Stark, she’d still be wide open to his ‘punishments’ every time Robb wins a battle; these would probably go worse for her since her awkwardly androgynous looks wouldn’t make Joffrey tell his Kingsguard to leave her face alone; and she’d eventually be condemned to marry Ramsay Bolton; and we all know what he did to poor Jeyne Poole.

‘If Arya were in Sansa’s situation, she’d handle it so much better,’ are frequent criticisms of Sansa that I’m just plain tired of, so the point of this post is to imagine what would happen if Arya were in Sansa’s situation and see what pops out at the other end. Of course, there will be things I don’t think of. There will be plotholes. But we may find that the two sisters aren’t really so different after all if you put them in the same boat.

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Period immediately after Ned’s death

Catelyn observes to herself at one point that if Arya is still in King’s Landing, Cersei is very likely keeping her far away from the public eye; Arya not being the type to sit down and behave. This fact would also leave Arya wide open to deliberate, obvious attempts to get her to sit down and behave by breaking her; the first and most obvious being to lock her up. Arya is a deep brooder, and it takes a lot to make her cry. So brooding is probably what she would do locked up in whatever room she’s been put into. Escape would be her first thought, which she’d probably attempt almost immediately with something brave but hopeless, like trying to shove the guard over when he delivers her food. If you think of how little mind the Kingsguard pay to Sansa’s nobility when beating her, it isn’t hard to imagine that Arya would probably get a backhand for her trouble from an ordinary soldier. She might refuse to eat after that, but then it would occur to her that eating would keep her alive to take revenge, à la Jaime Lannister. Thoughts of revenge would then lead to the first draft of the List. She’d inevitably be dragged off to see Cersei for a pep talk and an ultimatum to behave or be chastised. The latter would most likely result in Arya spitting in Cersei’s face and attempting to smash her head in with the nearest heavy object. She’d be whipped at that point without being given the option of a whipping girl (which she’d turn down anyway). Cersei wouldn’t dare allow her to attend court, so she might be spared Sansa’s ordeal of being forced to look at Ned’s head on a spike: either that, or Joffrey would give himself the sadistic pleasure of reliving the torture a second time, with another Stark daughter. If the latter, Arya would very likely manage to break Joffrey’s nose before it could occur to the Kingsguard that she might attempt such a thing. They’d grab her soon enough, however, and she’d end up whipped again, and back in her room. Then she’d cry.

Artwork by revived-from-the-ashes on tumblr

Artwork by revived-from-the-ashes on tumblr

Once the initial shock has worn off

I’m guessing Arya isn’t just going to change her mind and cooperate, so the only times she would see the light of day are very likely when the…let’s say monthly ritual of trying to get her to behave inevitably results in a beating, or Joffrey takes it into his head that someone needs to be punished for Robb’s victories. Something tells me he wouldn’t be averse to having both Stark girls stripped and beaten in front of him. The Kingsguard would learn quickly that Arya fights back instead of pleading; so whereas Sansa usually cries but takes her beatings like a good girl, Arya would have to be restrained (we know her well enough to perceive that she’d try anything from grabbing a poorly-placed dagger to simply running off, half naked or not). This means that her entire life would effectively alternate between long periods of isolation and vicious beatings. The problem here is when this way of living would eventually break her, the definition of ‘break’ being key here. Think of the horrors that Arya experiences, the torturing she witnesses and the killing that she sees, hears and does in the books. Do these things ‘break’ her? Think about the stereotypical image of a ‘broken’ person: ‘running on autopilot’, emotionally numb, not caring if they live or die. Yes, Arya definitely has a powerful survival instinct and does indeed care whether or not she lives or dies: she has a List of kills to do. But what about her emotions? Arya’s primary feelings when considering herself and her life are shame, fear and anger, which lead to a sort of lack of consciousness that she is human at all, and that dreadful pronouncement that she has a hole where her heart used to be. There’s a precarious, artificial calmness on the surface and in her mind that can be shattered at any moment, the ever-present fire inside losing none of its intensity. But because she fears being kicked out by the Faceless Men (and because she genuinely wants to join them), she’s no longer free to do anything she wants. She can’t be herself anymore, both literally and figuratively. So she’ll present an outward mirage of calm: inside, she’s terrified, alive, with no idea what to do about it and no idea how to find out except to keep on living, and learn. Sounds a lot like Sansa, doesn’t it?

Back in our imaginary universe, alternating between confinement and beatings may very well be a longer process than murder and torture in the books, but they would eventually have the same ultimate effect in turning her into an automaton that’s also a ticking bomb. At some point, Arya would realise that she stands a better chance of escaping and surviving by keeping her mouth shut, cooperating and observing. When this would actually occur is anyone’s guess, though after the Red Wedding seems most likely, for obvious reasons. And when Arya would eventually come to this decision, she would have to do what Sansa does every single day: smile, be polite to every Lannister she sees, participate in court life, pretend she’s a guest instead of a hostage and pray that she doesn’t get killed. A life of walking on broken shards of glass that would be a serious challenge to her already-tried nerves (remember she won’t have had the emotionally-hardening experiences of A Clash of Kings onwards and will also be suffering from cabin fever) and very likely turn her into a quivering wreck with an inexplicably strong survival instinct. In other words, it’d turn her into another version of Sansa.

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Another thing Arya would certainly have done in Sansa’s place is attempt to escape. Since we should give her the credit of being able to hold out for at least a few months, if not longer, we should consider the possibility of Littlefinger’s scheme to spirit Sansa away after Joffrey’s wedding either including or excluding her. Both are possible. Littlefinger might only be interested in the eldest Stark girl for obvious reasons and therefore not pay much heed to leaving the youngest behind. But then he’d also have a considerable hand of cards in his pocket if he had both Stark girls under his control, so he might very well take them both (and hopefully put someone apart from Ser Dontos in charge). His decision to take Arya along would no doubt be motivated by how much he would stand to lose from her marriage to Ramsay Bolton. We’re never told if he knows about this, or if the idea had even been conceived of when he first started making his plans…nah. Even if he did know about the Bolton marriage, the temptations of the intrigues he could hatch with control of both Stark daughters would be too great to resist. So Arya goes along. Then what? While it’s impossible to answer this question without getting dangerously close to inventing instead of speculating, the point is still the same: we have both Stark sisters traumatised and emotionally-repressed, pawns in a game they don’t understand, both ‘handling’ their situation in the same way. Tiptoeing, swallowing fear and escaping.

So while our imagining of Arya’s journey to living as a ward of the Crown that executed her father may express greater stubbornness and courage than Sansa’s acceptance of her situation, it wouldn’t really qualify as ‘handling it better.’ ‘Handling it better’ seems to denote a greater strength of mind or a greater control of emotion, neither of which Arya possesses in greater quantity than Sansa, who has endured all the agony of her situation without snapping or going mad. Our imagining of what Arya would do in the Red Keep following Ned’s death is the long way round to the same result; a noble but pointless reaction that few characters but Brienne would applaud.

Featured image is by vici-mercedes on fanpop

Valar Dohaeris: Game of Thrones S03E01 (Review)

Let us grieve, for winter has indeed come on the day this blog has anything bad to say about Game of Thrones. Regrettably, in comparison with the consummate artistry of last season’s finale Valar Morghulis, this season’s premier, Valar Dohaeris is no response at all. Much like the books, the show is beginning to suffer under the weight of so many characters and plotlines; but while GRRM has always demonstrated consummate skill in keeping the quality of his prose high despite this, the show appears to have been left gasping for breath on the shores of Pyke, like a drowned man left half alive by his initiation. A great tabula rasa seems to have taken place, the usual high caliber acting and writing swept away by a tsunami way of boredom, mediocrity and childishness. It is not even clear if this is due to the story becoming too big to handle. Whatever we may put it down to, it’s a tragedy.

The principal goal of this season’s premier is to bring us up to speed with what’s been going on since last season’s finale. Some audience favourites are absent from the proceedings to save on time, notably Arya, last seen interrogating Jaqen H’ghar about the perks of being a Faceless Man; and Jaime and Brienne, last seen bickering somewhere in the Riverlands. The rest of Westeros is trying to accustom themselves to their world post-Blackwater: Tyrion is mourning the loss of his power as Hand of the King, Cersei is mourning the fact that the attempt on his life during the battle failed, Littlefinger is obscenely thrilled that Sansa no longer wants to live in King’s Landing, Margaery is embarrassing Joffrey by helping the poor, Jon is adjusting to life beyond the Wall, the Night’s Watch are trying to get back to the Wall, Robb is making a show of locking up Cat for releasing the Kingslayer, Stannis and Davos are still boring everybody to death and Daenerys is in Astapor seeking to purchase an army of Unsullied in order to finally take her first steps in once again making Westeros the home of House Targaryen. It’s a lot to pack into one hour, and the signs of this overcrowding are everywhere.

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For the first twenty minutes or so, one is seized by the unsettling feeling that one is watching a lot of people dressed up like Jon, Ygritte, Cersei, Tyrion and Sansa, but who are impostors of some sort. None of the actors really seem to act like their characters anymore. Whether it’s Cersei rather sweetly assuring Tyrion that ‘if I wanted to kill you, would I let a wooden door stop me?’ or indeed Tyrion cowering behind said door with an axe and bickering with her like a spoilt American teenager with an ‘enter at your own risk’ sign on his door; whether it’s Joffrey placidly asking his litter bearers why they’ve stopped instead of threatening to execute them, or watching Margaery enter an orphanage without threatening to execute her, all the personal idiosyncrasies and psychologies of the characters appear to have dropped away so that they all resemble the same boring and utterly uninteresting person.

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That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions. The two seconds’ screen time accorded to Ciaràn Hinds’ Mance Rayder resonate with the same charisma he demonstrated as Caesar in Rome, and leaves the viewer with a tantalising expectation of more awesomeness to come. On the down side, his towering presence utterly steamrolls poor Kit Harington, who is going to have to up his game considerably if he doesn’t want to completely disappear into oblivion. Daenerys’ scenes are also unusually un-annoying; and the agonising teething pains in the Khaleesi’s relationship with slave societies show us her steadfastness and sense of justice in more concrete ways than we have seen before. Emilia Clarke just really needs to find a way to respond to a child that doesn’t include a stupid, mildly-creepy grin: it makes her look like the assassin rather than the person about to be assassinated. The army of Unsullied presented to Daenerys was also thoroughly unimpressive and not particularly intimidating, and one can’t help feeling that showing the Unsullied’s lack of genitalia as well as the gratuitous cutting-off of nipples might have slightly enhanced their street cred. Some attempt to salvage this street cred has been made in making a change from the books so that the Unsullied are required to purchase and kill a baby as opposed to raising a puppy for a year and strangling it, though this grisly changement only achieves the opposite effect. We’ve seen in this show that any savage can murder a child they’ve never seen before: it takes genuine cold blood to raise an animal for a year and create a bond with it before being required to murder it. So hanging onto the puppies might have been a better idea. On the plus side, it’s a delight to see that the Valyrian of the free cities has now been created as well as Dothraki, which shows that at least some things in this show have not declined. The scene between Tywin and Tyrion is also a happy respite from the general devastation. Loaded with emotion and powerful acting, particularly from Charles Dance, who is harrowingly brilliant at making Tywin even more casually cruel to his son that he had ever been before, it’s a devastatingly hurtful step in the tragic, irretrievable decline of the relationship between Tywin and Tyrion that also demonstrates great acting from Peter Dinklage, his performance moving and tragic. Tyrion has endured far too much of a downward spiral since Blackwater to be able to face up to such cruelty with his usual biting sarcasm, and Dinklage is masterful at portraying both Tyrion’s exposed vulnerability and how hard he tries to hide it from the one person he should be able to share it with. This scene is a line of gold in a lot of murky shoddiness – but then we should consider that almost all of it is paraphrased from GRRM.

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This brings us to the point that this meteoric decline in acting is most probably due to the meteoric decline in the writing. Whatever changes the show has made to the story in the past and whatever controversy they have caused, the writing has always been high art. Each scene has a place and a purpose in each episode; each episode has a place in the whole. The dialogue has been so psychological and has made so many references to so many different things; has meant so many different things to the characters; the very combinations of the words have sung with beauty and made them wonderful to listen to. In this premier episode, all of these values appear to have been unceremoniously chucked out of the window. What the hell was all that nonsense between Bronn and the Kingsguard outside Tyrion’s chambers, and what purpose did it serve? And what the hell was the point of that ridiculous conversation between Ros and Shae, and what purpose did it serve? In a premier episode when you’re pressed for time, can’t you leave that kind of pointless embellishment out and stick it in later on when you need a link? And why was so much time given to Davos and Stannis, when it’s the one part of both books and series that is so irredeemably BORING??? And the ending. How does Barristan Selmy revealing himself to Daenerys constitute a climax, when most audience members won’t remember who he is and those that do won’t be dancing on their chairs when they recognise him? When did the great writing on this show become such a shallow, disjointed, superfluous, mess?

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Season 1 and 2 of Game of Thrones make you swear each time viewing is interrupted by an ad break and growl in indignation at the end of each episode. Valar Dohaeris leaves you cold and utterly indifferent as to what’s going to happen next. The production is still gorgeous and the locations sweeping. But this show had better pull up its fucking socks by next week or it’ll be the biggest disaster in TV history before too long.

The Most Unconventional Pairings in Westeros

About a year ago, a highly imaginative vidder named Coolcia produced this little diamond in the very, very rough of a fanvid. Set to Muse’s outrageously erotic Time is Running Out, its goal is to imagine what the ‘most unconventional pairings in the whole Westeros’ would be. The consequently crazy result is the hooking up of Cat and Jon, Ned and Cersei, Sansa and Viserys, Arya and Jaime, Robb and Daenerys and Littlefinger and Renly. Once I’d pulled myself back onto my chair after falling off it, I began to think, as I do sometimes. Actually lots of times. So would any of these pairings work? Let’s take a look.

Cat and Jon

Older woman falling for someone who could have been her son, whom she detests and whom she treats with awful cruelty because of his being a permanent reminder of the adultery her husband allegedly committed? The potential is there for one gigantic explosion of Phédre-like guilt and self-destruction, hate chemistry, sadomasochism and all the usual mischief associated with forbidden love, on both sides. This could work.

Ned and Cersei

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Two characters that detest each other and happily contemplate murdering each other falling in love is always positively delicious, usually because they’ll feel an affinity, do everything to destroy each other, then want to destroy themselves when they’ve accomplished that goal. Cersei being a lot more into destruction than Ned, you can sense that most of the destruction would come from her side and that she’ll barely have time to congratulate herself on having him arrested for treason before his head gets chopped off and she’s seized by a horrible, hysterical grief at what she’s done, à la the Marquise de Merteuil. Ned being such a stubborn lump, he’d probably place honour and the truth above love and therefore not think twice about threatening to expose her to Robert, which would probably make him feel righteously awful and would only increase her eagerness to take him down. This could work.

Sansa and Viserys

Honestly, what is it with Sansa and inbred blond sadist arseholes? If Sansa was stupid enough to fall for Joffrey in season 1, there’s no reason why she wouldn’t fall for Viserys were she ever unfortunate enough to be introduced to him. Like Joffrey, Viserys is perfectly capable of acting like an angel when he feels like it, and marrying him also carries a promise, though less certain than Joffrey’s, that she would someday be queen, ‘a prospect that once delighted you,’ as Cersei would say. As for Viserys, he certainly wouldn’t be averse to Sansa if he met her, and would probably see her as yet another pretty thing that he could conquer, torture and eventually destroy. What’s interesting about this is that this relationship would eventually precipitate exactly the same character development in Sansa as her relationship with Joffrey does, which seems to suggest that the poor Lady Stark is more a victim of her own innocence and stupidity than that of Joffrey’s cruelty. So yes. This could work.

Arya and Jaime

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Sorry. I just fell off my chair again. Coolcia’s fanvid puts Jaime in a similar position to Syrio, which is a fantastic idea. It would create a deep identification between them early on, grounded on respect rather than ridicule for Arya’s ambitions, a common love of swordfighting and the mutual, unacknowledged love that often characterizes a good master-pupil relationship. Personality-wise, it’d be a spectacular case of opposites attract, Arya being reckless hellfire, revenge and anger 24/7, Jaime permanently reckless but hardly ever motivated by blind anger: he’s too experienced for that. There’s also opportunity for a show-stopping, perhaps permanent bust-up i.e. Jaime having thrown her little brother out of a window and all the hellish Stark versus Lannister stuff during the war. Could either represent a possible reconciliation between Stark and Lannister or make the whole feud a lot worse, probably the latter. This could work.

Robb and Daenerys

Despite Robb’s being battle-hardened and experienced in war, you can’t help feeling that Daenerys, having been trained for queenship among the Dothraki, would eat him alive: she’s done too much and changed too much to willingly chain herself to a King. On the other hand, Robb has also grown up with parents who have a relatively egalitarian relationship, so it doesn’t seem likely that he would try to make his wife submit to him. Chemistry-wise and personality-wise, this doesn’t seem like a good fit. The losses that House Stark suffered under Daenerys’ father King Aerys are a definite obstacle, and you don’t really get the feeling that a marriage would stop the North from remembering. Then again, both of them have been known to fall suddenly and violently in love with inappropriate people, so a marriage would not only be possible, but could also pave the way for a difficult reconciliation. This could work, but probably wouldn’t be the best idea.

Littlefinger and Renly

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Renly hates Littlefinger, Littlefinger only sees Renly as being a pawn in the Game and a mild annoyance to boot. While Renly’s status as a pawn would leave him open to sexual advances cf. Sansa Stark, it doesn’t really work, firstly because Renly isn’t a defenseless girl, and secondly because imagining him and Littlefinger at it is very difficult. The chemistry isn’t there. Despite his love of throwing balls and jousts left, right and center, Renly is a sentimentalist: he has sex for love, a feeling that he definitely doesn’t cultivate towards Littlefinger and probably never will. Plus, the only whiff of homoerotic energy that ever comes off Littlefinger happens when he’s dealing with Varys, and the mutual disrespect/disregard between Littlefinger and Renly comes from slight annoyance rather than hate, which makes it difficult to conjure up chemistry. This would not work.

Conclusion

Yes, these combinations are crazy and not all of them work. But the fact that we can talk about them, entertain them and refute them only serves to reinforce the might of GRRM’s creative genius and his powers of characterisation.

The Swordfighting Women Conundrum: A Study

The issue of the swordfighting woman and whether or not we should be rolling our eyes at her is something that we’ve only touched on briefly on this blog. In order to get a more interesting conversation going, let’s refresh our memories on what we’ve said so far, notably in the post For the love of God, would you stop fucking up fairytale movies?

‘So. You think up a bunch of characters that are glaring stereotypes. There’ll be the persecuted royal who wants to have an adventure; the yawn-inducing bad guy who wants…something; two pretty boys with chests bared in a sub-zero climate who are after the same girl and most complex of all, the chick with the sword, complex because nobody seems to know what they want out of putting that sword in her hand. Either she makes a fuck-up of it so she can be rescued by some punchable alpha-male, or she proves a pro at it despite there being no evidence of such a thing being the norm in her family life, culture, or social milieu. So is this stereotype a commendable reversal of gender roles, or isn’t it?’

Let’s forget about the stereotypes that particular piece ranted about and simply use the criteria it lays down to go for a spin around a couple of fantasy kingdoms, this being the genre where the swordfighting woman features the most. Hopefully our journey will allow us to straighten out who becomes a three-dimensional, conflicted human being/feminist through her relationship with her sword and who stays boring and conventional despite being in possession of this exciting accessory.

Snow White – Snow White and the Huntsman

Film Title: Snow White and the Huntsman

 

Is swordfighting acceptable in culture/family life/social milieu?


There is no indication whatever of this. Fantasy world seems to be built on medieval model, no evidence of other female warriors, so probably not.

 

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to character’s psychology/development?


Not really. Her sword and armour in the final battle are reduced to the same status as cute toys or dresses; her use of a sword to kill Ravenna not creating the slightest impression of the primal kinship between herself and her weapon that characterises the better-written warrior women. On the other hand, Snow’s rather idealistic shocked response to Eric’s improvised lesson on how to stab someone with a dagger (which is sort of a sword) could be interpreted as the character’s first shock into the brutal world of real life. This doesn’t precipitate much character development, however: but that’s more or less the permanent state of Snow’s existence.

 

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to plot?


No. Despite Snow’s eventually killing Ravenna thanks to sticking a sword in the right place, you still get the feeling that a brick to the head would have had precisely the same effect. In this movie, it’s not how Ravenna dies that important, only the fact that she does.

 

Does character require rescuing by punchable alpha-male in a battle situation? If yes, is said-saving linked to lack of proficiency, incapacitation of character during battle, or simply to character’s gender?


Mercifully, no. There is evidence of male characters being inspired by this intention throughout, but this scheme thankfully never comes to fruition.

 

So does she need a sword?


No. Feminist enough to triumph and not to require saving, but utterly unconvincing both in terms of character development linked to her sword and of plot.

Brienne of Tarth – Game of Thrones.

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Is swordfighting acceptable in culture/family life/social milieu?

No. Fantasy world built on medieval model. Brienne is often cruelly mocked, both because of her desire to be a knight and her masculine looks. She very seldom meets with compassion or understanding.

 

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to character’s psychology/development?


Yes. In ordinary situations she merely seems to plod clumsily along like a great lump. With a sword in her hand, she soars. It’s only through swordfighting that she feels she is worth something or that her life has a purpose. It’s what saves her from the cruel japes she endures night and day, both in giving her that sense of purpose and in knocking the senses out of her tormentors. On a softer note, swordfighting is also the only way for a woman of her appearance to be close to Renly Baratheon, whom she is unaccountably in love with (you could do so much better, Brienne!) and whose death devastates her.

 

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to plot?


Yes. Her duel/brawl with future best friend/resident pain-in-the-ass-she-happens-to-be-chained-to Jaime Lannister, which ends with her sitting astride him trying to drown him in a stream, is a show stopper that leads straight into a whirlwind of calamitous consequences: their capture by the Brave Companions, Jaime’s loss of his hand and ensuing psychological collapse, their deep, but odd friendship, and the bear pit scene. In terms of later events, it’s also through Brienne’s quest for Sansa Stark that we get our first glimpse of Lady Stoneheart.

 

Does character require rescuing by punchable alpha-male? If yes, is said-saving linked to incapacitation of character during battle, or simply to character’s gender?


No. Requires saving by Gendry due to incapacitation in battle, Gendry certainly qualifying as male but is neither an alpha male nor particularly punchable. Incapacitation is here defined as unconsciousness while Biter was ripping chunks out of her face.

 

So does she need a sword?


Yes. Swordfighting is her strength and her worth; it’s her entire life; it’s how she fights injustice by defending the weak and slaughtering the evil; as much a part of her as breathing.

Morgana Pendragon – Merlin

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Is swordfighting acceptable in culture/family life/social milieu?


Yes and no. Took lessons with Arthur as a child and possesses ready-made sword and armour. It is implied that these are simply provided for self-defense. As a woman, cannot issue challenges without causing an uproar; women do not fight in jousts/battles alongside men. Ultimately ends up doing just as she pleases; is consequently experienced in battle.

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to character’s psychology/development?

No. Morgana’s psychological development is considerable, but primarily through self-doubt and fear of her magic being exposed gradually transforming into raging, revenge-driven evil that allows most mischief to be perpetrated without recourse to swords.

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to plot?

Yes. Her swordsmanship makes substantial contribution to winning of many days and several stand-offs with Merlin, her use of it to escape kidnappers obligingly creating the need for Gwen to be rescued rather than her (sigh).

 

Does character require rescuing by punchable alpha-male? If yes, is said-saving linked to lack of proficiency, incapacitation of character during battle, or simply to character’s gender?


No. More often requires consoling and reassuring than rescuing. When she does, it is habitually by her sister Morgause, another proficient swordfighter.

 

So does she need a sword?


No. Her character would have developed in precisely the same way and she would still be the heroine of all Arthurian feminists without having to possess a sword.

Éowyn Dernhelm – The Lord of the Rings

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Is swordfighting acceptable in culture/family life/social milieu?

Yes; culture of ‘shieldmaidens’ brought up to believe that ‘the women of this country learned long ago that those without swords could still die upon them.’ It only seems acceptable for shieldmaidens to fight, however, when men are away at war and cannot protect them: they don’t fight in battles or wars.

 

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to character’s psychology/development?


Yes. Éowyn’s love for her sword is deep, both from a cultural perspective and because she sees it as the only means available to her to fight for the ones she loves against the armies of Sauron. It is her way out of the future she predicts for herself i.e. spending the rest of her life shut up indoors until her spirit breaks and her chance of valour is lost. Half-wild, stubborn and angry at being forbidden from fighting, she disguises herself as a man and makes it to the battle at Pelennor Fields, where her spirit undergoes a grueling and brutal test.

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to plot?

Yes. Her killing of the Witch King of Angmar is legendary.

 

Does character require rescuing by punchable alpha-male? If yes, is said-saving linked to lack of proficiency, incapacitation of character during battle, or simply to character’s gender?


Yes and no. Is only able to kill the Witch King thanks to Merry’s first stabbing him in the back, which gives her the opportunity to loosen his grip on her throat and deal the final blow, an action that has frequently been construed as proof of sexism on Tolkien’s part. More dead than alive, she is afterwards in need of prodigious healing by Aragorn, and a good long spell in the Houses of Healing, where she meets future husband Faramir and affectionately describes him as having ‘tamed’ her. Now, neither Merry, Aragorn or Faramir are punchable alpha males (okay, maybe Aragorn’s a bit of an alpha male), but all of them help, in a certain way, to get Éowyn from one cage straight into another. Worst of all, she’s only too happy to go! Everything’s okay now, Sauron’s been defeated, so she can hang her sword up, marry Faramir and have babies. Please don’t misunderstand me. Faramir and Éowyn are my favourite LOTR couple; I deeply lament the lack of scenes between them and I’m convinced in my heart that Éowyn would challenge Faramir to a duel if he tried to do the domineering ‘my lord husband’ thing. But despite the fact that Éowyn finds the glory she’s looking for, sees that she misinterpreted her feelings for Aragorn and meets her soul mate, at the end of the day, she’s still seen as a spirited woman who has to be tamed and married off. It’s a very 1950’s attitude and is a bit of a cock-up on Tolkien’s part that he’s allowed this kind of bullshit to creep into such a good thing.

So does she need a sword?

Yes. She wouldn’t be herself without one. A sword is her chance for another life, and the chance to add it to thousands of others to fight for good is a major driving force in her character.

Conclusion

A woman with a sword is not as common a thing in our history, mythology and culture as a man with a sword. Where a swordfighting woman appears, she is outnumbered ten thousand to one. A sword can represent an ideal, a person, a past, a future, a people, an entire life. It can also represent nothing at all, and be empty, meaningless, or trick us into seeing something that isn’t actually there. Giving a female character a sword should serve a purpose. It should create something in her character, or at least in the plot. Randomly slapping a sword to her hip does not prove that the character is meant to be a feminist. That sword has to mean something, both to her and to us. If it does mean something, you’ve succeeded in creating that feminism. If it means nothing, all you’ve done is pretend to.

Featured image courtesy of thewaymarks.files.wordpress.com

A Frivolous Flying-Through of the Third Game of Thrones Season 3 Trailer.

There’s nothing like waking up first thing on a Monday morning to a new Game of Thrones trailer. Let’s discuss the healthy doses of new footage to be found in our latest fix, many of which boast the same strength of previous trailers in that they show key moments without giving too much away.

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This trailer is the unquestionable property of Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, who, apart from looking gorgeous in blue, is in the full flower of her conquest of the slave cities, a symphony that will eventually end in a bit of a fart when she gets to Merreen. But, that time has not yet come, so we’re treated to some glimpses of the strategic mastery that characterises her negotiations with the sellsword companies before slaughtering them; the growing destructive power of her dragons culminating in the sack of Astapor and a nice ‘I shall show you no mercy’ filling in the gaps between suspiciously 300-looking shots of her army of Unsullied and an ‘I want to eat you alive’-looking pretty boy whom I assume is Daario, and who looks just as punchable as he is in the books (where’s the blue hair? Or was it purple?). Let us recall Ser Jorah’s words: ‘I think you are Raeghar Targaryen’s sister.’

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Presumably while visiting his Hand in prison, Stannis is still saying increasingly yawnable things about duty and his claim to the Iron Throne that bear all the promise of continuing to bore us to tears. On the plus side, prison lighting does wonders for his somewhat wonky looks, and the series’ further controversial portrayal of his relationship with Melisandre promises to instigate even more pitched online battles between fans. We’re given just a bit more of the epic fight between Jaime and Brienne (for thoughts on their relationship, see every GOT post I’ve ever done, ever) and quite a bit more of the bear pit scene, regrettably sans Brienne. The eternally virtuous Robb and Cat are accorded more screen time devoted to promising eternally virtuous actions; half second shots are given to Arya and Asha (Yara, sigh) Greyjoy, both in combat situations, and to some chick getting her clothes taken off, a reminder of the tradition paradoxical treatment of women in HBO shows.

The state of King’s Landing politics is appropriately described by Tyrion as ‘Seven Kingdoms united in fear of Tywin Lannister.’ This is done in voice-over as he looks at his mangled face in the mirror, the cherry on top of all his power being unceremoniously snatched away from him in last season’s conclusion. He appears to still be squabbling with Cersei, who, three seasons later, still hasn’t got out of the habit of making chilling, if ambiguous comments about exterminating the enemy. Either of them squabbling doesn’t seem to be doing much good, since the one shot that is accorded Lord Tywin shows us that he is still a considerable badass and not to be fucked with. Meanwhile, in all things Joffrey, the hints made by previous trailers about the growing instability of his rule finally reach full fruition in that the boy king’s exasperating repetition of his favourite declaration: ‘I am the king!’ reeks of desperation, making him sound rather more like a seven year old declaring ‘I am Batman!’ Despite his desperation, he hasn’t yet got over his taste for torture (there appears to be a rack involved) and there is a gorgeously filmed scene involving a chapel and a flight of stairs that seems to hint at Sansa’s wedding, the fact that the groom is Tyrion kept entirely out of the equation.

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There is a big increase in the quantity of North of the Wall footage, with Jon taking centre stage in most of it. This is both appropriate and important, not just because he’s the POV character of that particular part of the world, but because the previous season, and all previous trailers, have shown him as being an outsider to it. The connection to the North that Jon discovers in himself is extremely primal, and stays with him even when he returns to the Wall, so seeing Jon take up such a central position in the trailer is a good sign that this part of his personality is going to be preserved. We’re also given another reminder that no one can stop the white walkers (just in case we’d forgotten), and some incredibly quick shots of Bran, Hodor and Osha and what could be Jojen and Meera Reed testify to the incredible complexity of the land beyond the Wall and the many different stories and feelings it can inspire.

Sansa, Arya and creepy older men: why people need to calm the fuck down.

If A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones have taught us anything, it’s that one can never truly define or anticipate the complexity of human relationships, or what one person means to another. In Westeros, as in life, affinities spring up between the unlikeliest of people, and this chemistry, which causes many fleeting meetings of eyes, moments of sadness, thrills of horror and small smiles of recognition, is often so powerful and so interesting that we can’t wait to get these people alone together to observe like scientists what sort of things they’ll get up to. Game of Thrones abounds with relationships like this, but the ones that simultaneously cause the most controversy and the most swooning are without doubt those that stem from Sansa and Arya’s odd propensity to experience intense chemistry and identification with creepy, oddly magnetic men that are much older than either of them. For Sansa, it’s Sandor and Littlefinger, for Arya, it’s Jaqen. But here comes the problem: readers and viewers who oppose these relationships aren’t so much concerned with the fact that our heroines are associating with amoral killing machines, amoral sociopaths or amoral Faceless Men, only with the fact that they’re experiencing these feelings in spite of a huge age gap. Don’t the Stark girls have more important things to worry about? Let’s appeal to the mother grundies to calm the fuck down, and take a better look at why hurling accusations of inappropriateness and paedophilia around does nothing but make mountains out of molehills and sling mud at beautiful things.

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Game of Thrones -  The Ghost of Harrenhal - Arya

Medieval history and the fantasy genre both abound with significant age gaps between men and women, none of which lead to much disaster.

During the Crusades, for instance, Frankish nobility, particularly girls, would often marry as young as nine or ten (consummation not allowed), with fourteen to sixteen being the norm. Many of these political marriages to significantly older men were terrific successes: men of thirty or forty would fall passionately in love with their young brides, and the marriage would often come to resemble the relationship that exists between modern couples who have known each other since infancy. Men would see their wives as incarnations of youthful optimism and innocence, and women would see their husbands as father figures that would protect them and that they could look up to. Suggesting to such a couple that their relationship is indecent on the grounds of an age gap would probably get you drawn and quartered if you were lucky. For once, incredibly, the Crusaders are right: there is nothing indecent about this kind of love. If anything, it is more profound than many modern relationships.

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Then there’s the question of age gaps in the fantasy genre. In more classical fantasy novels, notably the works of David Eddings, there exists a healthy quantity of teenagers falling in love with teenagers, but also a fair amount of very young women in their late teens to early twenties beginning relationships with middle-aged men, with great success. The Malloreon is perhaps the best example of this. The Margravine Liselle, an ingenious and witty young spy, falls in love with the infinitely but adorably devious spy and reader-favourite Silk. Now middle-aged, he used to amuse himself with chasing her and pulling her braids when she was still a little girl, and consequently has trouble with the decidedly adult feelings that he now cultivates towards her. But in all ways, they’re a perfect fit: they’re an ideal intellectual match and brilliant at their shared profession, the depth of their feelings often concealed by a constant witty repartee that becomes part of their daily life. There’s also the moving case of Zakath and Cyradis. A powerful and ruthless Emperor in his mid-forties, Zakath is possessed by a horrifying guilt and anger brought on by his having executed the woman he was in love with for a treason she did not commit. He spends most of his life paying the world back by drowning it in blood. Cyradis, on the other hand, is a young Seeress defined by her delicate archaic speech and a vulnerability caused by the blindness she must adopt in order to maintain the power of prophecy. Each is inspired by instinct to protect the other, so that each becomes the refuge and the peace of the other. So: are you honestly going to tell Liselle, Silk, Zakath and Cyradis that their feelings are indecent? Liselle, Silk and Cyradis might even let you live. Zakath would simply crucify you.

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BUT! I hear you say. We don’t want Sansa and Arya to stay away from Sandor, Littlefinger and Jaqen because they’re older than them! It’s because they’re dangerous company for anyone. Yes, this is also a good argument. Boring, but good. But if we object to Sansa and Arya hanging out with such dangerous people, then why do we fixate so constantly about an age gap that isn’t actually relevant to how dangerous these men are? Maybe it’s because chucking a word like ‘paedophilia’ into an argument is a sure-fire way to get your opponent to back down.

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BUT! I hear you say. You’ve talked about ages fourteen to sixteen being normal in the Crusades and late teens, early twenties being normal in fantasy. In the books, Sansa and Arya start out as eleven and nine respectively, in the TV series as thirteen and eleven. It’s not okay for girls that young to be romantically involved with older guys, is it? No, it definitely isn’t. Except that Sansa and Arya aren’t ‘romantically involved’ with any of these men. They simply feel a connection with them, an attraction to them that they can’t really account for (and don’t forget that Sansa rejects Littlefinger’s advances). And it’s not like you need to be grown up to feel a connection with someone. All this ‘shipping’ that some people find so disturbing is simply in anticipation of something truly great that could occur once the girls hit an acceptable age. For both of them, but for Sansa in particular, that deadline is not far off.

Human relationships, and especially human feelings, are intense and complicated. We find ourselves watching others, listening to others, trusting others, without knowing why. This is called chemistry, and it exists in any kind of relationship, romantic or otherwise. This is an ageless truth, and living as we do in a modern age often makes us forget that things that harken back to our past, even in as indirect a way as fantasy, should be understood as they were in that past. In the Crusades and in classical fantasy, a fourteen year old is a woman grown: in reading A Song of Ice and Fire and watching Game of Thrones, that should be our attitude too.

(featured image is by game-of-thrones-confession on tumblr)