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Game of Thrones: “Better” not “good”

game-of-thrones

Well, color me surprised. Not only did I watch all of Game of Thrones Season 6, but I actually enjoyed it. Judging from discussion on the internet, I’m not the only one. Many people have praised the show for its dramatic improvement in quality from last year.

At some points, “dramatic improvement in quality” feels like a massive understatement. Some sort of divine intervention seems to have taken place, removing most of the absurdly overt misogyny that has plagued the show from the beginning, and only gotten more intense as the seasons progressed. Perhaps the mainstream criticism of Sansa’s plotline concerned the showrunners. Perhaps network bosses stepped in because the show was losing viewers and getting bad publicity. Whatever happened, somebody somewhere decided that they needed to cut it out.

So what did that leave us with? No rapes in the background of scenes. Almost no “sexposition.” One scene in a brothel, one other appearance of a prostitute, and, I think, only two topless female main characters, one of which was at least semi-justified by the story.

Basically, (almost) no more misogynistic scenes so gratuitous that they were impossible to ignore. I sincerely doubt that the showrunners made these changes because of a huge moral change of heart, but the changes did happen, to the extent that when the show fell back into old habits later in the season, scenes that would once have seemed fairly mild felt jarring and extreme in contrast with the show’s new normal.

It’s like a breath of fresh air. Game of Thrones gets away with a lot without losing viewers, in part because many viewers are already invested in the plot and characters from the books. I can’t speak for people who only watch the show, but as a book reader, I find it almost impossible to quit (obviously, as I’m back here writing about it again), because I desperately want it to be good. So when the show suddenly drops its most overtly misogynistic elements, especially after a season that was as awful as Season 5, we breathe a sigh of relief and happily skip along to the beat of its drum again.

Because in contrast, it seems good. In contrast, it feels totally unmisogynistic. The stuff that came before was so blatant and extreme that the show simply needs to stop being so in-your-face awful for people to accept it again.

For casual viewers, there’s nothing wrong with this. People don’t have to critically analyze everything they watch. They can take it at face value and go on their way. I know I often have two reactions to things — the “as I was watching” emotional reaction, and the more critical and analytical reaction that I tend to write about. One reason I enjoyed this season was that I didn’t review it, and spent most of the time in that “just watch and enjoy” mindset.

The problem occurs when critics fall into this handwaving trap as well.

Game of Thrones feels so much better, on the surface, but let’s be honest. Better doesn’t mean it’s become good. The show has all the more subtle problems its always had. Female characters who become caricatures of “badass” strength, usually by embracing misogyny or else acting in cruel or idiotic ways to show their “strength” and “independence.” The plot contorts itself to give “reasons” for female nudity.

And, on a less feminist critical level, it doesn’t make sense. How in the seven hells did Varys start episode 10 in Meereen, show up in Dorne to talk to Olenna, and then return to Meereen at the end, for the sole purpose of sailing to Westeros again? Can he Apparate? Even if it made sense geographically — which it doesn’t, unless the episode covered many months — it’s completely illogical. Or there’s Shireen, who Davos seemingly forgot about for eight episodes. There’s everyone declaring Jon King in the North, even though I can’t imagine that would be unanimous, considering Sansa is right there. So many issues where the plot steamrolls on, without pausing for reason. As long as you roll with it, it’s all enjoyable stuff. But if you stop to question it too much, it begins to fall apart. And critics should question it. Critics should always question.

Of course, the opposite critical approach is also a problem. If critics are bitter and mocking and determined to hate whatever they’re watching, then they’re not really in a position to give commentary either, except perhaps for the gifs and the lols. One reason I stopped reviewing Game of Thrones (and other shows, like Doctor Who) was that I’d reached eye-rolling levels of cynicism. I wasn’t just picking faults. I was completely unable to enjoy any good elements of the show. There’s no point critiquing a show if you don’t, on some level, want to be impressed by it.

And there’s no point critiquing a show if you refuse to be disappointed.

Game of Thrones hasn’t become feminist, just because it keeps telling us how feminist it is. It feels more feminist, because it’s stopped slapping us in the face with how overtly misogynistic it is, but the fact that it’s no longer awe-inspiringly bad doesn’t mean it’s suddenly become good. The attitudes of the writers haven’t changed, just the way they express those attitudes. They don’t regret their past stories on a moral level. They just don’t want to lose viewers. They don’t want to be called out on their misogyny.

So yes, I enjoyed watching Season 6 of Game of Thrones, on a surface level, “don’t think too hard” sort of way. There were many genuinely good elements — the first twenty minutes of the finale, in particular, were a masterpiece of pacing, directing and tension-building. But many problems still lurk beneath the surface.

And since I missed an entire season worth of reviews, there are now far too many thoughts in my head, and far too many threads to fit into one general post. So this place is probably going to become very Game of Thrones-centric for the next couple of weeks. Because I enjoyed this season, but I still have a lot to say.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

20 thoughts on “Game of Thrones: “Better” not “good”

  1. I know a lot of the “magical transporting” did not make sense. But honestly, I was just so happy to see Dany finally, finally, finally FINALLY getting her army together and hauling off to Westeros! Hopefully, they don’t drag it out too much?

    BTW would you like to offer any thoughts about the Tyrion/Dany BroTP?

    1. Haha, Dany finally leaving was WONDERFUL, although I’m not letting myself believe she’ll actually arrive. There are a lot of other places she could stop before she gets to Westeros. 😛 Although I’m actually much more interested to see her take on Queen Cersei than I would have been if the other politics had still been in play at King’s Landing.

      I’m not sure what I think about the Tyrion/Dany BroTP. On the one hand, he’s a very useful potential advisor to her, since he has lots of insider knowledge on how her enemies work, and more experience of politics than most of the people on her side. On the other hand, it’s become slightly ridiculous, with Dany being the “I will burn them all with fire and blood!” caricature, and Tyrion beside her as a voice of reason. But as far as the story goes, I think it makes sense, and gives the potential for lots of interesting storylines, as long as it doesn’t become the Tyrion Show, with his sidekick Queen Daenerys.

      1. LOL I think Tryon’s pretty much becoming Dany’s sidekick, especially with Dario and Jorah out of the picture (for now).

        Fingers crossed that we get a Cersei vs. Dany face off next season!

  2. The biggest issue the show faces from a purely story telling aspect is pacing. They obviously have an end game and trying to condense this insanely massive story into whatever remaining episodes they have is inevitably going to leave plot holes and flat characterizations. The Varys thing, or Arya popping up at the Twins, didn’t bother me because I assumed a good bit of time had passed during their respective storylines. Unless the audience wants to see Varys on a boat for an entire episode this will get even more pronounced as they try to wrap this thing up. Plus, nothing can match the Mereenese Knot GRRM fell into.

    1. Pacing has always been a problem for the show since S1. As the characters have spread out across the map, there have been too many plotlines to keep hold of, so it always feels like we just check in with everyone for five minutes each episode. It makes it feel simultaneously really plodding and really rushed. I think one of the reasons this season was stronger is because a whole bunch of characters were together again, so it didn’t have to jump around as much. I still feel like we missed big chunks of things, but it wasn’t quite as frantic as before.

      But I think one of the show’s big problems is its own version of the Mereenese Knot. Things aren’t quite syncing up right. There probably were big leaps in time in the last episode, but because it was one episode, it all felt like it was supposed to be happening around the same time. So it took Jaime about the same time to return from Riverrun as it took Olenna to hear about what happened, meet with Varys, and have him travel all the way back to Meereen. It’s probably not intended, but I guess the nature of TV makes it almost impossible to have all the plotlines reach dramatic finale-esque points in the last episode, AND have them sync up in a way that makes sense once they all start coming back together.

  3. How in the seven hells did Varys start episode 10 in Meereen, show up in Dorne to talk to Olenna, and then return to Meereen at the end, for the sole purpose of sailing to Westeros again? Can he Apparate? Even if it made sense geographically — which it doesn’t, unless the episode covered many months — it’s completely illogical.

    Aside from the temporal issue (and yes, at this point the show has basically given up on pretending it takes time to travel anywhere), Varys went to Westeros to get ships (as he said in 606), and he returned to Meereen with said ships to transport Dany’s huge army. You can see a bunch of vessels with Martell and Tyrell sails in the armada.

    1. It made for an impressive shot (since they have to close every season with a wideshot of Daenerys with her latest army and dragons of course), but now that I think about it I do have to wonder why the hell the Martell and Tyrell fleets sailed ALL THE WAY TO MEEREEN WHICH IS HALF THE PLANET AWAY FROM WESTEROS, only to TURN AROUND AND SAIL RIGHT BACK.

      1. Haha, oh my god, I did not get that they were from Dorne at ALL. I thought they the ships Asha and Theon brought with them, and they’d just built the rest of them really, really quickly. Probably in the same timeskip montage that Varys used to get back and forth. 😛

        1. Yeah, some of them are flying the Kraken but if you look closely you can see ships with the Tyrell rose and Sunspear emblem on the sails mixed in with the Greyjoy and Meereen fleet. Again, makes for a cool shot, but it’s SO inefficient travel-wise! There is no point for them to sail that far just to turn around! It would have made so much more sense for them to wait, say, in Dorne maybe and meet Dany there.

      2. Hmm, maybe they sailed to Meereen half-empty to help transport all the Dothraki and Unsullied? The shot was beautiful but confusing. It felt like we missed some important scenes there, such as Daenerys and Varys meeting for the first time. After all, before Tyrion’s arrival, all she knew was that he’s been spying on her, so I was curious if she’d trust him easily. Anyway, I’m just trying to imagine the last scene happened months after everything else in the episode.

        1. Huh, I hadn’t thought of that. If Varys relayed to Olenna and Ellaria that they needed more ships to transport the army, then that actually would make sense for those ships to sail that distance. Hooray, maybe the show writers had more logic than I gave them credit for!

      3. Er, I covered that in my post. Varys said they needed ships in 606. The Tyrell and Martell vessels sailed to Meereen to help transport the huge army Dany had by then assembled.

  4. Without any question the quality of this season has vastly improved, but the show still retains certain flaws.
    The biggest flaw in my opinion was that it´s plainly obvious that the producers haven´t thought exactly through how to compress the book material adequately into the series format, or to be more precise, which subplots to retain and which to drop, leading often to quite seriously rushed and at times circular plots, the most obvious example for both rushing and circularity being the vast speed in which Daenerys once again returns to the dothraki, quickly elevates herself from slave to khaleesi/godess, grabs the Mereen fleet on the way back and there we go. Similar case with Arya….

    The show would be really disappointing if it wasn´t for the fact that it still contains pure gold at some times, often in quite sharp contrast. The “Battle of the Bastards”-episode was quite meh with Jon Snow doing the Leeroy Jenkins move (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0dA9eUP85s) and the producers just having to pull off the lame hollywood-instant-army-twist, but the tenth episode again started with pure awesomeness.
    Cersei Lannister is probably one of the best (now quasi-) villainesses currently on air and definitely one of the shows best written characters, if not currently the very best. On the one hand she succeeds astonishingly thanks to her enemies once again underestimating her determination and ruthlessness, but at the same time she fails miserably thanks to her narcisissm and vanity. Especially such well plotted scenes (probably owed to the book material) show just how much could have been done way better.

    1. Haha, that Leeroy video is great. And one thing in the show’s favor, I think, is that all the plotlines are finally (hopefully) starting to come back together. I feel like it won’t be long before we have one The North plotline, one King’s Landing and one Daenerys and Co plotline, which makes things so much easier for them to juggle and do well. The show seems to work best when it spends a big block of time on one storyline and returns to it multiple times in an episode, rather than jumping from story to story for five minutes at a time. So fingers crossed that’ll help next year!

  5. I also enjoyed this season and was pleasantly surprised by the relative lack of naked women in the background (how sad that this was my expectation!) My only major problem was Dorne, and that they tried to frame it as female empowerment. So to be empowered, you have to happily murder your relatives? Obara and Nym were just so gleeful when they killed Trystane; they not only showed no remorse or doubt, but were actually enjoying it and making incredibly bad jokes about it. And the “Fire and Blood” speech in the last episode was nice, but it loses its impact when they give it to Ellaria and Varys. In the books, it was the result of a plan 20 years in the making, kept secret with incredible patience. It also marks the point when Doran decided to trust Arianne with his plans. And here we just had Ellaria spontaneously decide to support Dany.

    The scene with Yara and the prostitute was also a bit weird. So another way to be empowered (in case you have no relatives to kill for no apparent reason) is to be misogynistic towards women in a weaker position? It reminded me of the scene where Arya told Tywin that “most girls are stupid.”

    But overall, I liked it. I just really really hope they are not setting up Sansa vs. Jon for the next season!

    1. Well, i would really love to know where this strange formula for creating strong female characters by turning them into a kind of super-cruel-bully-macho-hypersexual-lesbian/bisexual-testosterone-machine, which even as male character would be completely over the top, comes from. I know and watch people from litterally every political and cultural spectrum and there is NOBODY, just NOBODY who doesn´t find this concept of “strong female character” completely silly and ridiculous, so it really makes me wonder, which audience is being adressed by this stuff…

    2. I really think the final episode was setting up for Sansa vs Jon, which I have a LOT of thoughts on. And then Bran will just rock up to Winterfell like, “Hey guys, remember me??” 😛

      The one good thing about the ridiculous Dorne scenes in the first episode was it looked like they were tying up loose ends and shoving that whole plotline under the rug. I was really not happy to see all that “Girl Power!!!” stuff come back in the finale.

  6. The Sand snakes are just ridiculous, and definitley over the top. But I don’t have that problem with other strong female characters of the show. Not even Yara and Arya, as we know more about them and have seen their weaknessess and humanity as well. But we know hardly anything about the Sand snakes, except that they are annoying and sometimes cruel just for the sake of it. Like a light version of Ramsay. I grew tired of his cruelties in the end.

    Other female heroes, anti heroes and villans of the show are more complex, but the Sand snakes are just silly and boring war machines. And no, that’s not female empowerment.

    Yet, I agree that the show had improved this season. It’s far from perfect, but it has definitley improved.

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