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Game of Thrones’ “Girl Power”: Women on Top (and stabbing you while you’re down)

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After criticisms of Game of Thrones’ misogyny rose to a fever pitch last year, the show has been determined to tell us how very feminist it really is. From the obvious “Women on Top” feature in Entertainment Weekly to seemingly endless interviews with cast members (especially cast members who had previously hinted at criticism of the show, like Natalie Dormer) asserting how it’s the most feminist series on TV, the idea that the show is actually super empowering has practically been shoved down our throats.

And, to give the show credit, this wasn’t only a branding effort. As I said last week, this season of Game of Thrones did manage to be less overtly awful, where “less overtly awful” sometimes meant “holy crap, is this even the same show??” when we watched yet another episode without any blatant misogyny.

The show has been helped by the fact that critics can no longer compare its plotlines to events in the books and reach conclusions based on what the writers left in and what they chose to change. That hasn’t stopped those criticisms entirely — instead we’re just guessing what will probably happen or not happen in the books based on the series — but it gives the show more leeway in terms of exploring misogyny in the name of the plot.

But for all its apparently genuine efforts, the show is still clinging to the idea of “feminism” it’s had for many seasons, where strength and badassness mean callousness, cruelty, and killing without guilt or mercy.

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Burn Them All: Cersei in Game of Thrones S6

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The opening twenty minutes of The Winds of Winter was one the best things I’ve seen on TV in a while. Sure, the battle in episode 9 was gritty and artistically shot, but the conclusion to the Faith Militant plotline this season was near stylistic perfection. It was beautifully directed with fantastic music, slowly building and building to a wonderfully tense and atmospheric conclusion. Some elements didn’t quite make sense — I’m still not sure why Lancel followed that child — but it was too compelling in the moment to care.

I’m fairly convinced that some version of this storyarc will also appear in the novels — it fits Cersei and Jaime’s book character arcs too perfectly for it to be entirely a show invention. But although the show did a great job atmospherically and stylistically, it tripped up with its interpretation. Because, for a series that’s determined to show us how gritty and unflinching it is, it really flinched away from the consequences of this dark plotline.

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Sansa, Queen in the North

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I had really high hopes for Sansa in the first few episodes of this season. In short succession, she united with Brienne, reunited with Jon, and began planning how to retake Winterfell, with strong opinions of her own and allies all around her.

Sure there were some hiccups, like her forgetting the words to accept Brienne’s fealty, but overall, it was a plotline that looked to be going great, emotionally satisfying places. And by that, I mean I think I half-jokingly texted the words “QUEEN IN THE NORTH” to friends a billion times while watching those early episodes.

But none of that promise played out in later episodes, because the show is unwilling to do anything to change Sansa’s one defining characteristic — being the victim.

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Game of Thrones: “Better” not “good”

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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.

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Redefining “Torture Porn”

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One of the big conversations about the new season of Orange is the New Black has revolved around whether or not the show has descended into “torture porn.” Personally, many scenes made me feel physically sick or psychologically disturbed me long after I finished watching, and there’s been a lot of debate about whether that makes good television or means that its been taken too far.

But Orange is the New Black, like other cable shows, doesn’t want you to enjoy watching this pain. It wants to make you uncomfortable. And that, I think, is part of a general shift to a new kind of “torture porn,” where shows compete to horrify the audience as much as possible in the name of serious storytelling.

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Spoilers and Hold The Door

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A few days ago, I started binge-watching season 6 of Game of Thrones. I didn’t watch the show as it was airing this year, because I was fairly certain that I never wanted to see any of it again, but some people I trust told me it was worth watching after all, so once it had all aired and no huge controversy had emerged, I sat down to watch it. And shock of shocks, I’m enjoying it a lot.

Of course, because I never planned to watch it but still feel semi-invested in what happens, I’m extremely spoiled for many major plot points. I was dreading one in particular, in episode five, The Door.

Spoilers obviously to follow!

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Game of Thrones: When “Shock” Stops Being Shocking

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Game of Thrones is in a bit of a bind.

It’s one of the most successful, talked about shows on TV, but it isn’t known for its intricate plot arcs or compelling characters. It’s famous for being shocking. And although this reputation gets people talking, it’s also destroying any integrity the show ever had.

Shock has to, by definition, be unexpected. If we expect a show to be shocking, we’re not shocked by it any more. So the series has to raise the stakes again and again, to be more and more extreme in order to keep shocking an audience that is anticipating that next big twist.

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The Two “Game of Thrones”

I have a problem: I kind of want to watch Game of Thrones again.

Not the actual show Game of Thrones, of course. I hate that show. But the imaginary Game of Thrones that I conjure up in my head, which is fun and dramatic and has these wonderful female characters that I love from the books. I really want to watch that show, especially since it now has new plotlines to offer.

This happens every year. The hiatus between seasons is long enough for me to forget how much I dislike the show, and instead imagine that it’s all the things I wanted it to be. It fades into pretty gif-sets on Tumblr, with book-related excitement filling in the gaps. And even though the show has beaten any optimism out of me at this point, I’m still curious. Maybe this time will be different. Maybe this time will be all Awesome Badass Moments, and not horrible misogyny and nonsensical plots.

It won’t be. Of course it won’t be. The show has almost free rein this year, and we’ve seen what happens when it invents its own plotlines. It’s the nonsensical story chaos in Dorne. It’s shock over substance. The show is capable of developing interesting characters and stories — Shae in seasons two and three, for example — but it doesn’t seem to want to make the effort these days, when pointless shock-value misogyny comes so easily.

And it seems that I’m not the only one who has a huge disconnect between my idea of Game of Thrones and the actual show. People involved in making the series seem to have a similar problem.

Take Sansa, for example. Sophie Turner has said that this season is “probably Sansa’s best yet. It’s her really coming into her own…. Viewers will finally get that storyline you’ve been craving for the past five seasons.” Which sounds great, except that we’ve heard it before. Before season five, Sophie Turner said that Sansa “tries to take command and begins to manipulate the people who are keeping her prisoner,” while the showrunners said that “she’s either going to die or survive and become stronger. She’s chosen the latter option and she’s learned from an incredibly devious teacher.”

We all know how that turned out. In fact, that quote from the showrunners was from an interview after the horrific Sansa plotline aired last year. And that same interview tells us what the writers’ priorities will be now that they can truly do whatever they like. “Sansa is a character we care about almost more than any other,” they said, as they explained why they added a plotline where Ramsay Bolton repeatedly raped her. “There was a subplot we loved from the books, but it used a character that’s not in the show.” So instead of removing it, as they did with stories like Arianne Martell’s or the Iron Islands Kingsmoot, they decided to bring in one of their “leading ladies.”

And I just want to underline that statement again: they loved this subplot from the books. Let’s be generous and say that they loved Theon’s plotline in Book 5, how he struggles to refind himself and escape from Winterfell. But if that was the case, they didn’t need to keep the Jeyne Poole plotline. They could have had almost anything else happen in Winterfell. But they loved that plotline, so it became Sansa’s big moment for the season. Her chance to “grow” into a heroism role. Because don’t doubt, even if by some miracle she doesn’t have a horrific and violent plotline this season, she’s only “earned” it by undergoing that trauma and surviving it first.

The exciting, thoughtful, well-written Game of Thrones that most of us like to hope for doesn’t really exist. It’s a wonderful lie that has somehow taken hold. The show isn’t magically going to reach its potential, because the writers don’t want it to take that direction. The shock and misogyny is what they want to sell, and so they’ll continue to do so, no matter how many times we imagine that this time will be different.

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Do choices matter in Telltale games?

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Yesterday, the final episode of Telltale’s Game of Thrones game finally hit Steam. The game had a lot of expectations to meet — it promises, during every moment of gameplay, that your decisions will affect the story. After five episodes of strategy, manipulation and hard choices, players really wanted to see how they personally had affected the fate of House Forrester.

But did the decisions make any difference? Players familiar with other Telltale games won’t be surprised to hear that the answer is no. Players experienced a slightly different path depending on one major choice from episode five, and events happen slightly differently depending on what strategy you choose in this episode. But otherwise, no. It doesn’t make a difference. House Forrester meets the same fate. The same characters live or die, with one exception, and that one is only affected by a single decision in this episode, and not by anything that came before.

It’s incredibly frustrating, considering how much the game emphasized that your choices matter.

Coincidentally, I also just finished the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, a game that affected me so much I took a week-long break between episodes four and five due to despair over what was happening, and cried all the way through the credits and beyond. But here’s the thing. Choices don’t really change things in The Walking Dead either. The plot progresses almost exactly the same, no matter what. Yet while Game of Thrones‘ false free will frustrated me, The Walking Dead still managed to feel emotionally resonant, and the choices still felt meaningful.

The difference lies in the kind of choices that the games offer, and in where their difficulty lies. In Game of Thrones, we’re focussed on the potential result of our choices, while in The Walking Dead, it’s the choosing in itself that matters.

(Note: the post contains mild spoilers for both The Walking Dead S1 and Game of Thrones)

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So Game of Thrones won the Emmys

OK. Let’s talk about the Emmys.

Last night, Game of Thrones won 12 awards, breaking the record for the show with the most wins in one night. Among those awards, it won best drama for the first time in its history, and best director and best writer for its season finale, Mother’s Mercy.

The fact that it won for best drama this year is laughable. Even ignoring all the show’s misogyny, its changes to Sansa’s plotline simply for shock value, its overuse of rape as a plot device, its decision to burn Shireen to death so that Stannis could become a villain… even ignoring all of that, Season Five was not a well-written season. Episodes lacked flow, with the sense that we were working through a checklist of “gotta see every character for five minutes before the episode ends.” Character plotlines fell apart. Brienne spent weeks staring at a window. Myrcella lived and died with no discernible personality or characteristics. Everything was misogynistic and nothing made sense.

But the real sting comes from the wins for Mother’s Mercy. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Lena Headey’s nomination for her work in this episode, and how the power of her performance shouldn’t be dismissed because of its context. Lena Headey lost that award to Uzo Aduba — a very worthy surprise winner. But while Lena Headey lost, the writers and director who created that context of misogyny won.

This wasn’t a pointed message from the voters, but its connotations are still skin-crawling. Those who create stories about misogyny deserve commendation. The women who bring those stories to life, who have to experience those emotions and recreate that humiliation, do not.

An Emmy for the man who chose which camera angles to show Cersei’s full-frontal naked walk through the streets. An Emmy for the man who chose to have Cersei descend into shot so we could see her whole body before we saw her face, and who decided what other nudity to have in the scene. Basically, an Emmy for the gazer, the one who constructs how we see Cersei, how we see all of the story.

And an Emmy for the men who wrote the scene. The men who put the words in each character’s mouths. The ones who chose to use misogyny for shock value. Not much writing was needed for the Shame scene, since it was lifted straight from the books and was short on dialogue, but they were rewarded for the writing in the whole episode… killing Myrcella, after a season where she was given no real personality, no apparent goals, no explanations for her actions. Including the Sand Snakes as interchangeable figures where one literally says “you want the good girl, but you need the bad pussy.” Hanging Selyse in grief over her husband killing her daughter. Deciding that Stannis needed to be killed off-screen, because that would be gratuitous.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this is considered Emmy-winning stuff. These days, “good drama” seems to have become interchangeable with “shocking drama,” the more painful to watch the better. And although Game of Thrones has pulled off major shocks, most notably Ned Stark’s death and the Red Wedding, a really good drama needs to inflict that shock value on women. Nothing is more award worthy than a rape story, especially one where an emotionally broken male character can win his redemption by helping the victim. Showing the screams of a young girl burning to death while her father watches is a powerful way to transform him into a villain, and that’s good TV. And a woman forced to walk naked through the streets for seven minutes of unbroken TV time while a mob screams misogynistic abuse has the triple threat of being painful, shocking TV, being a vivid “critique of misogyny,” and providing the audience with full-frontal nudity. Thanks to our culture’s toxic mix of viewing women as delicate flowers/helpless victims while also treating them with distrust and contempt, nothing is more shocking yet somehow acceptable as seeing a woman forced to suffer, especially if she suffers for being a woman.

And nothing is more Emmy worthy than shocking an audience in a way that they can ultimately feel comfortable with — by mistreating women, erasing their stories, and calling it unpredictable, brutally realistic art.

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