The (Long) Winter of Our Discontent

On Shakespeare, Civil War, and the ending of Game of Thrones

 

Some have compared the final two episodes of Game of Thrones to the ending of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, particularly the Scouring of the Shire, where the forces of the wizard Saruman rampage through Frodo’s beloved Shire (cut from Peter Jackson’s film trilogy). Given George R.R. Martin’s own comments on his love for, and frustration with, Tolkien’s narrative, it’s a good start, if perhaps not the perfect comparison. When the heroes ‘win’, they don’t really win, and even if you do make it home, the home you find isn’t the one you left. As is so often the case, Game of Thrones dials it up to eleven, and Daenerys Targaryen, in a fit of rage, madness, or pure ruthlessness, sets her one remaining dragon loose on the city of King’s Landing, all but leveling it to the ground, before Jon Snow kills her for the greater good. From the ensuing power vacuum, the kingship over all but the North, which is given status as an independent realm, passes to Bran Stark by election, and the implication in the final scenes is that Westeros has returned, more or less, to business as usual.

 

But others have pointed to an older inspiration, namely William Shakespeare. Jeffrey R. Wilson uses ‘spoilers’ from the fifteenth century to predict an alliance between Jon and Daenerys, while the Twitter user ShakespeareofThrones invokes Macbeth’s combination of supernatural and human conflict to explain why the Night King plot ended where it did, and why the final conflict had to be over the Iron Throne. Both are good readings (if from earlier in the season), but, as I often tell my students, I’m here to complicate things a bit.

 

The final battle was not, as one might have expected, between the living and the dead. It instead hinged on the question of who was the ‘rightful’ heir to the Iron Throne and who deserved to rule the Seven Kingdoms. Was it Cersei, who was the sitting queen at the beginning of the season? Was it Daenerys, who crossed half the world with dragons to claim it? Or was it Jon Snow, recently revealed to be the son of Daenerys’ elder brother, and thus, technically, the heir to House Targaryen by traditional male primogeniture?

 

Shakespeare’s answer: It doesn’t matter.

 

There is no rightful ruler; there is only the ruler who wins. And, as Cersei herself remarked in the first season of Game of Thrones, “you win, or you die.” She won, and then, in the final scene of “The Bells,” she died. Daenerys, too won. And then she died in the finale, her body carried off by a grieving Drogon to parts unknown. Jon did not win, and he survived. What can we read into this?

 

Here, we turn not to Macbeth, but back to the history plays, specifically the first tetralogy depicting the Wars of the Roses. In these four plays (the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III), the English throne is the prize, but as the conflict drags on, it becomes far more about revenge and bloodlust than any political or dynastic claim.

 

In Henry VI, Part 2, characters go to great lengths to enumerate their claims to the throne. The Duke of York, for instance, gets a convoluted speech explaining why he should be king of England, and the response—“what plain proceeding is more plain than this?”—is almost always used as a laugh line. By the end of that play, however, things get personal when fathers, brothers, and sons begin to die, and their living relatives vow increasingly violent revenge. And when the charmingly villainous Richard of Gloucester confesses to the audience that he too seeks the crown halfway through 3 Henry VI, he enumerates his connection to the king not to bolster his claim to the throne but as a list of people he needs to murder in order to take it: “Between my soul’s desire and me— / The lustful Edward’s title buried– / Is Clarence, Henry, and his son young Edward, / And all the unlook’d for issue of their bodies.” (3.2).

 

Henry VI, Part 3 is nothing if not a full-on bloodbath. In Act 1, the duke of York’s youngest son Rutland is brutally murdered as he begs for mercy, and in the following scene, Queen Margaret taunts York with a handkerchief soaked in Rutland’s blood before she and her allies stab him to death. In Act 5, York’s three sons avenge their father and brother by stabbing Margaret’s son to death in front of her, and the play’s penultimate scene is the brutal murder of King Henry VI by Richard of Gloucester, who then explodes in a virtuosic soliloquy of ambition, bitterness, and self-loathing. “I have no brother, I am like no brother,” he says. “I am myself alone.”

 

The three final claimants to the Iron Throne—Cersei Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and Jon Snow—shared a tangled, bloody history like the warring nobles of Shakespeare’s tetralogy. Of the three, only Daenerys had a direct blood relationship to a reigning ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, and that ruler was Aerys II Targaryen, the “Mad King,” hardly a ringing endorsement. But the show was clearly invested in the idea that Jon, as the secret son of Rhaegar Targaryen (Daenerys’ elder brother) and Lyanna Stark, was somehow the most legitimate of the three, which, aside from being contradictory and unnecessarily confusing,[1] also undermined much of the emotional and thematic thrust of the War of the Five Kings.

 

We didn’t root for Joffrey even though he inherited the throne directly from King Robert Baratheon (sure, we knew he wasn’t Robert’s son, but it was never officially declared). We didn’t root for Stannis even though he was, strictly speaking, the next in line after Robert since Joffrey was illegitimate. (Those who did root for him did so because, until he started setting family members on fire, he seemed like a pretty decent dude and was the only claimant to the throne who paid any mind to the threat of the White Walkers.) And anyone who rooted for Cersei probably did so because some people just like to watch the world burn.[2]

 

In short, none of these claimants was any more legitimate than the others, and since the showrunners chose to undermine Daenerys’ character in order to make their One True King look better, it smacks of lazy storytelling. It’s not a coincidence that Daenerys, who, up to the point of “The Bells,” was no better and no worse[3] than any of the other claimants to the Iron Throne, was penalized far more for her choices than any of the men who came before her. Stannis burned people alive. Renly entered a civil war for no reason other than fame and the lulz. Joffrey was…Joffrey. Tommen did his best but was ultimately ruled by those around him (not unlike Shakespeare’s Henry VI). And we viewers had no illusions about how awful Cersei was, though the script seemed insistent that Tyrion—supposedly one of the cleverest characters on the show—underestimate her at the worst possible times.

 

I remarked on Twitter recently that Shakespeare’s plotting techniques (playing with genre, tormenting his audience, and killing likeable characters in terrible ways) have more than a little in common with George R.R. Martin’s. Showrunners Benioff and Weiss, on the other hand, seem more interested in creating moments of shock and spectacle without earning them through consistent plot and characterization, and they are consistently willing—indeed, eager—to sacrifice women to further the plots of men. While it was absolutely possible to bring Daenerys to the point at which “The Bells” found her—isolated, rejected by the citizens of Westeros, enraged by the cold-blooded murder of her closest friend—the ‘snap’ seemed to many viewers (myself included) unearned. A few more minutes, maybe even an old-fashioned monologue, would have got it done. Furthermore, the alignment of Daenerys and her followers in the finale with unmistakeably Fascist imagery and the clumsy attempts to equate her destruction of the slave economies of Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen with her eventual rain of “fire and blood” upon King’s Landing was downright offensive.

 

Daenerys could have had a tragic arc—a genuine tragic arc. Shakespeare did it with Margaret of Anjou, stretching that arc across four plays. If we watch the plays in chronological order, we encounter Margaret as a young girl in the final act of 1 Henry VI, and we watch her play the English game of thrones in Part 2, a game that costs her the man she loves. By 3 Henry VI, she is a cold-blooded murderer, stabbing the duke of York after taunting him with the death of his young son. But she turns in that play, clawing with increasing desperation to preserve her husband and son’s legacy in the wake of Yorkist victory, until King Edward and his brothers murder that son in front of her. She curses them over his body, and those curses are made manifest in Richard III alongside political conspiracies to oust the house of York from the throne once and for all. Nor is it a coincidence that these two plot arcs—the supernatural and the political—come to a head in Act 4, Scene 4 of Richard III, a scene that features three powerful female characters—Margaret, the Duchess of York, and Queen Elizabeth—one of whom beats Richard at his own rhetorical game.

 

(Sure, the play isn’t over until Henry of Richmond kills Richard in battle, but Richard loses the war the second he underestimates his sister-in-law Elizabeth. Shakespeare’s track record on women is very much of his time, but even he does better than the showrunners of Game of Thrones.)

 

At the end of Richard III, the new king makes no claim to dynastic legitimacy (Hi, Bran!), aside from referring to himself and his future bride Elizabeth of York as “the true succeeders of each royal house.” Indeed, his final speech concludes with a threat to any who might try to claim the throne from him—“Let them not live to taste this land’s increase / That would with treason wound this fair land’s peace”—and the assertion that “civil wounds are stopp’d.” An Elizabethan audience, only a few generations removed from the wars of York and Lancaster, would have well known that different conflicts plagued the reigns of Henry and his descendants, including their own queen Elizabeth I, who, in the 1590s, had yet to proclaim a successor.

 

Rather than privileging one claimant over another for eleventh-hour reasons and shortchanging all of their female protagonists while they’re at it, perhaps a happier ending for everyone in Westeros would have been the splitting of the Seven Kingdoms into its constituent parts. Drogon did everyone a great service by destroying the Iron Throne (and how much did I love that part? So much), and it was disappointing to see everyone just shift back to the status quo.

 

That part, however, does chime with Shakespeare’s ending. Henry of Richmond, a nonentity if ever there was one, takes the throne from the charismatic, murderous Richard. The world goes on, everything is tied up neatly, and we all go home.

 

It’s a pity civil wars aren’t that simple. Even Shakespeare knew that; he wrote his history plays in opposite order, and ended not with Richard III but with Henry V, whose epilogue reminds the audience that everything fell apart shortly after the titular king’s glorious victory at the battle of Agincourt.

 

“Small time, but in that small most greatly lived
This star of England: Fortune made his sword;
By which the world’s best garden be achieved,
And of it left his son imperial lord.
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d King
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France and made his England bleed:
Which oft our stage hath shown; and, for their sake,
In your fair minds let this acceptance take.”

 

[1] The show appears to be conflating Jon’s storyline in the books with that of a character calling himself “Aegon Targaryen” and claiming to be the son of Rhaegar and Elia Martell who was believed to have been murdered with his mother and sister on Tywin Lannister’s orders during the Sack of King’s Landing…only they’ve already made reference to this other Aegon in earlier seasons.

[2] I say this as an avowed Cersei fan; she is a great character, and I would never, ever want her to be in charge of anything.

[3] I’m not defending her colonialist rhetoric or her willingness to play God with the lives of many nameless brown people. But every claimant believed they were doing the right thing, that they were chosen to rule. Plus, it’s not like Jon Snow has any room to talk, given that his battle tactics thus far have amounted to a full Leeroy Jenkins during the Battle of the Bastards and screaming at a dragon at the Battle of Winterfell.

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Game of Thrones 8×05 – Cry havoc! And let slip the dragons of war.

I guess it’s fitting that the episode of Game of Thrones that aired on Mother’s Day would be the one where the Mother of Dragons let her last remaining child run wild and slaughter the population of an entire city. I guess that’s appropriate somehow.

 

No, wait. It isn’t.

 

I’m not saying they haven’t foreshadowed this in the books—or even, to a limited extent, earlier in the show. We’ve seen Daenerys relish in the power of her dragons before. When she freed the slaves of Astapor by unleashing Drogon on the slaver Kraznys, we loved her for it. When she took back the city of Meereen from the Sons of the Harpy, we cheered her on (even if we weren’t quite on board with how the show handled the Dothraki, but, well, it’s not like they’ve ever given us reason to expect better). And any time her dragons turned their firepower on the Army of the Dead, we knew the living had a decent chance of winning that fight. We know she’s been frustrated by the reception she’s had in Westeros, having blazed her way across Slaver’s Bay in a haze of victory and dragonfire only to find that the realm that had once been her family’s saw her as a terrifying outsider, not the, um, liberator she’d been led to believe she was.

 

(And this has as much to do with her advisors as anyone else, let’s be clear. Varys and Tyrion both had plenty of opportunities to explain to Daenerys that Things Work Differently in Westeros, particularly for women and both have the context to do so; this would probably have made for boring television to anyone who wasn’t a total book nerd, but there were ways to imply that it had been done without showing it directly. Her expectations did not match her reality from the second she arrived in Dragonstone at the beginning of Season Seven, and the introduction of Jon Snow as a rival who is preferred largely on account of having a dick is a legitimate source of aggravation that most non-cis-men can understand.)

 

We also know that the Targaryens have a history of madness. “When a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin,” says Varys on the show. In the books, it is Barristan Selmy who speaks the line, as a quotation from the first king he served in the Kingsgaurd, Jaehaerys II:

 

“But every child knows that the Targaryens have always danced too close to madness. Your father was not the first. King Jaehaerys once told me that madness and greatness are two sides of the same coin. Every time a new Targaryen is born, he said, the gods toss the coin in the air and the world holds its breath to see how it will land.” – Barristan Selmy in A Storm of Swords, Chapter 71

 

This is a conversation that Barristan has with Daenerys shortly after she conquers the city of Meereen, and he has already specified that he had been watching her before pledging his service to her to determine whether or not she was mad like her father. Having decided she wasn’t, he agreed to serve her until death.

 

While there are plenty of criticisms to make of Barristan himself, and of what he does and does not reveal to Daenerys about her family history, the fact is that, up to the point at which the books end, she is the one amongst her siblings who isn’t mad. Viserys clearly is—we see that from the start—and while Rhaegar is romanticized, his actions started a war that killed thousands, so clearly he isn’t the greatest role model either. Daenerys, at this point in time, chooses to stay in Meereen instead of sailing directly to Westeros precisely so that she can learn how to rule, something neither of her brothers bothered to do. This is supposed to set her apart from the rest of the Targaryens.

 

A version of the conversation between Daenerys and Barristan happens on the show, but in a different context. There, Daenerys is already Queen of Meereen and she is dealing with insurrection by the Sons of the Harpy. Barristan takes her aside after one a petitioner demands that she destroy the rebels, that “all [the slavers] understand is blood.”

 

Barristan warns Daenerys that what she calls the “lies” about her father are in fact true, that he was mad and bloodthirsty:

 

BARRISTAN: When the people rose in revolt against him, your father set their towns and castles aflame. He murdered sons in front of their fathers. He burned men alive with Wildfire, and laughed as they screamed. And his efforts to stamp out dissent led to rebellion that killed every Targaryen except two.

DAENERYS: I’m not my father.

BARRISTAN: No, Your Grace. Thank the gods. But the Mad King gave his enemies the justice he thought they deserved. And each time it made him feel powerful and right. Until the very end. (Game of Thrones 5×02, “The House of Black and White”)

 

That last paragraph is the kicker, and it shows that the seeds for Daenerys’ downfall were, at least in theory, laid relatively early on. But the showrunners have clearly forgotten about many of these seeds in their desperate desire to shoehorn the endpoints given to them by George R.R. Martin into a plot that they like. And what they like is chronically unimaginative, trite, and lazy.

 

Woman is enslaved. Woman gains power beyond anyone’s imagination. Woman goes crazy and must be destroyed by men. Also brown people are scary and will murder you for no reason, so they must also be stopped. Able-bodied white men who can win face-punching contests are the only acceptable heroes.

 

That, in a nutshell, is what we saw in “The Bells,” a cinematically stunning episode that falls apart if you look at it too closely.

 

We begin with the end of Varys, who is supposed to be one of the cleverest men in this universe. In the books, he has managed to survive no fewer than five different monarchs, most of whom wanted to kill him at one point or another. He has built up an extensive, powerful spy network, and he knows everything. (In the books, furthermore, he is also spearheading an enormous conspiracy to place a pretender on the Iron Throne, but the show threw that plotline out the window in Season Five even if it appears to have kept the big finish, namely the destruction of King’s Landing in fire and blood.)

 

Unfortunately, while the show did right by him for the first four seasons, as soon as he left King’s Landing, his arc fell apart. That is, I suspect, because they dropped the pretender Targaryen plotline from the book that had been the mainstay of Varys’ plotting, which then left him with nothing to do other than tentatively agree to support Daenerys until he decided not to…because the showrunners can’t handle clever characters and prefer dramatic idiots.

 

The Varys of Seasons 1-4 would have conceived of a low-profile, terrifyingly subtle plan to undermine Daenerys over a period of several years until nobody could trace it back to him. This Varys might as well be wearing a t-shirt reading “Ask me about treason.” He writes, blatantly, to persons unknown about Jon’s Secret Targaryen identity, he approaches Jon head-on about the topic, and he’s already expressed his fears about Daenerys to Tyrion. Daenerys is absolutely in the right to be furious with Tyrion for not telling her earlier on about Varys’ reservations; as Hand of the Queen, keeping her informed of threats against her is one of his primary functions.

 

Varys meets a fiery end after a brief, touching moment with Tyrion that feels both unearned within the context of the season and deeply depressing on a meta-level, since they’re two of the cleverest characters on a show that has lost any use for cleverness. Tyrion has also suffered unduly from the transition beyond George R.R. Martin’s written narrative. One of the most interesting characters from the books, played by one of the most gifted actors in the series, he’s fallen into a one-note slump for the past two seasons, dispensing terrible advice and underestimating his enemies.

 

(For instance, how did neither Tyrion nor Varys suggest to Daenerys that a more effective way to get rid of Cersei would be to use one of the hundreds of secret passages beneath the Red Keep that both of them know about and send an assassin, or even a small group of assassins, to take her out along with her main councillors? They could even have enlisted the Hound, tasking him to handle FrankenGregor; hell, they already have a mostly trained Faceless Man with a grudge against Cersei and a talent for killing Big Bads. But I digress.)

 

Instead, Tyrion continues to inexplicably demand a rapprochement between Cersei and Daenerys despite the fact that anyone with half a grain of sense can see how impossible that is. His stated goal is to save the citizens of King’s Landing, but he never once thinks about ways in which he could do so by stealth despite the fact that all of his victories in the first several seasons come by stealth and cunning. It’s one of those instances where the character is clearly smarter than the writer, and the writer has another, far stupider, agenda.

 

That agenda is to turn Daenerys into the Mad Queen so that Jon (and, presumably, Arya) can be justified in taking her down. As I said earlier, there were perfectly reasonable ways to do this that did not involve the sloppy characterization and lazy writing evidenced in “The Bells.” Deadspin even provided an alternative that only requires changing one event in the prior episode. Their alternative also pinpoints one of the stupidest parts of “The Last of the Starks,” namely the utterly unnecessary death of Rhaegal that would have been far more effective as part of the final attack against King’s Landing. Having the Mother of Dragons react to the death of her second “child” by unleashing hell on King’s Landing would have made far more sense. It would be no less horrifying, but it would at least follow some sense of internal logic and character arc.

 

It highlights how plot-vulnerable the dragons and Euron Greyjoy both are. In one episode, a dragon gets punctured full of holes by nothing more than a comically large crossbow. We have been told over and over how powerful and indestructible dragons are. We’ve seen Drogon get shot at multiple times in Meereen and survive. How, then, does a single bolt through the neck—not, as one might anticipate, through the obviously vulnerable point of the eye—kill Rhaegal? The short answer is that the bolt didn’t do it; the plot did it. Similarly, Euron’s magically teleporting and all-powerful fleet gets smashed to smithereens within the first five minutes of the battle of King’s Landing. Were the visuals amazing? Yes. Yes, they were. Like the charge of the Dothraki into the darkness in “The Long Night,” those shots were breathtakingly beautiful. Did it make any goddamn sense? NO IT DID NOT.

 

Speaking of the Dothraki, apparently there are enough of them left to fulfill all the lazy stereotypes about brown barbarians. Between them and the Unsullied massacring women and children in the streets of King’s Landing while Jon Snow’s white knights (literal and figurative) exercise something resembling restraint, it was not a good day for anyone who expected better than racist bullshit.

 

But that brings us to the bells of the title. Tyrion goes on and on about ringing the bells. Ring the bells to signal surrender. Ring the bells to beg for mercy. On a logistical note, how the citizens knew that that was the signal when Tyrion is outside the walls is a mystery to me, unless we’re meant to assume that Jaime started the chant while fumbling his way through the city in search of the best way to the Red Keep even though Tyrion already told him of the secret passage into the city. But that’s another quibble for another day.

 

In A Dance With Dragons, we get another story about bells.

 

“Last night he’d dreamt of Stoney Sept again. Alone, with sword in hand, he ran from house to house, smashing down doors, racing up stairs, leaping from roof to roof, as his ears rang to the sound of distant bells. Deep bronze booms and silver chiming pounded through his skull, a maddening cacophony of noise that grew ever louder until it seemed as if his head would explode.

Seventeen years had come and gone since the Battle of the Bells, yet the sound of bells ringing still tied a knot in his guts. Others might claim that the realm was lost when Prince Rhaegar fell to Robert’s warhammer on the Trident, but the Battle of the Trident would never have been fought if the griffin had only slain the stag there in Stoney Sept. The bells tolled for all of us that day. For Aerys and his queen, for Elia of Dorne and her little daughter, for every true man and honest woman in the Seven Kingdoms. And for my silver prince.” (Jon Connington in A Dance With Dragons, Ch. 24)

 

According to this tweet, Martin had told Benioff and Weiss about a plot point where Jon Connington (aka Ser Not Appearing In This Picture) sacks King’s Landing in a fit of grief, rage, and PTSD, after the citizens ring the bells to signal their surrender. This, in turn, is a reference back to the last time the city was sacked, by Tywin Lannister at the end of Robert’s Rebellion. That event is held up as the Westerosi equivalent of a war crime, capped off by the brutal murder of Princess Elia Martell and her two children by Gregor Clegane and his men. In the first four seasons of the show, it came up repeatedly, most effectively during Oberyn Martell’s duel with Clegane in “The Mountain and the Viper.”

 

With those touchstones in mind, how the ringing of the bells would signal not mercy but the end of mercy makes perfect sense. Instead, here, we get no indication. Not a word from Daenerys—Emilia Clarke gives it her all, but the script gives her nothing to work with. Daenerys hears the bells. Daenerys burns it all down.

 

As with her miraculous “forgetting” of the existence of the Iron Fleet in “The Last of the Starks,” Daenerys here gets an ex post facto explanation for her actions, that she looks at the Red Keep, remembers everything her family lost…and sets fire not to the Red Keep itself (although she eventually gets there) but to the city below, thus earning herself a place alongside Tywin Lannister in the annals of great Westerosi war criminals.

 

Speaking of Tywin, how did his sack of King’s Landing never come up in this episode? I was literally shrieking at the screen on several occasions that someone ought to mention the last time King’s Landing was sacked and exactly what happened then. Tyrion could have brought it up to Daenerys in an attempt to urge her to be better than her enemies. Tyrion could have suggested getting the gates open by treachery, just like his father did. FFS, Cersei ought to have remembered it, given how proud she is of her House and heritage, rather than spouting off nonsense about how the city has never been taken. It has. It was taken by your father.

 

But nobody remembers it and history repeats itself; only this time, it’s the dragon and not the lion.

 

Which brings us to the end of House Lannister as we know it, and the other phenomenal disappointment in this episode. When Jaime rode away from Winterfell, my assumption—and that of many others—was that he was riding to kill Cersei or die trying. Attentive book readers were keeping an eye on Maggy the Frog’s prophecy (truncated in the show) that Cersei would die at the hands of the valonquar (Valyrian for “little brother”), and reminding themselves that Cersei often forgot that both Tyrion and Jaime were her younger brothers. Book readers also remembered Cersei’s assertion that she and Jaime came into this world together and extrapolated that the only way for them to leave this world would be together.

 

Instead, Cersei Lannister—one of the premiere villains from the first season onward—dies not with a bang but with a whimper, sobbing about how she doesn’t want to die as the ceiling collapses upon her. Such a disappointment. That’s not tragic or even cathartic; it just happens. (And the show saw fit to waste a bunch of time on a pointless fight between Jaime and Euron that did nothing for either character.)

 

One of the episode’s best moments was between Jaime and Tyrion early on, when Tyrion paid Jaime back for saving him back in Season Four. Another was between Arya and the Hound, when he sent her back before charging in to kill his monstrous brother. It didn’t entirely make sense—Arya came all the way to King’s Landing with one goal in mind—but given the context of a collapsing castle, I did like that the Hound saw fit to send the little baby assassin of whom he is so proud out of the wreckage in hopes that she would survive.

 

She does survive, via a Plot Horse who is appropriately pale (and whose name is presumably Death), and it seems quite clear that a new person’s name has been added to her nearly empty list. Daenerys, it seems, will face the god of death in the near future.

 

Bloggers and journalists have rightly praised the spectacle of this episode—its “ant’s eye view” of the horrors of war. The conjunction of visual and musical cue was often magnificent. After skipping the Season 7 soundtrack, I am absolutely planning to get my hands on the final season for that conflation of “Light of the Seven” and “The Rains of Castamere” alone because UGH CHILLS.

 

But…the plotholes. The broken characters. The barely veiled racism and misogyny. It’s exhausting. It’s like looking at a copy of a copy of a text that might have been brilliant but now survives only in fragments. We know the touchpoints, but we don’t know how to get there.

 

And that, quite frankly, is tragic.

Game of Thrones and the false feminist promise

It seems like such a long time ago that Game of Thrones advertised its sixth season with the tagline “women on top.” We were promised a slate of powerful, brilliant women poised to take over Westeros: Sansa Stark as Lady of Winterfell, Cersei Lannister (however one feels about her) taking the Iron Throne, and the Mother of Dragons herself coming to claim her birthright.

 

Lo, how the mighty have fallen. Or maybe they were never really there to begin with. Maybe, like the blink-and-miss-it moment of “girl power” during the final battle of Avengers: Endgame, the creators of Game of Thrones want all the credit for doing right by women while actually doing the exact opposite.

 

In the most recent episode, “The Last of the Starks” multiple characters voiced the opinion that Jon Snow was better suited to rule than Daenerys Targaryen was. He’s better tempered. He’s a war hero. He rides a dragon! (Never mind that the latter two also apply to Daenerys, and that part of her ill temper stems from poor writing inconsistent with her prior actions.)

 

Given the tenor of other remarks by the writers of Game of Thrones, they did not, in fact, intend to make pointed commentary on the difficulties women face when seeking political power. Rather, they confirmed what many had suspected from about the middle of last season onward: that they’re clearly aiming to put Jon Snow on the Iron Throne at Daenerys’ expense.

 

In an incisive essay for Slate, Lili Loofbourow pinpoints a major difference between the narratives constructed around Jon and those constructed around Daenerys: “In Jon’s case, others tell his story for him. Dany has to tell her own. The uncharitable result is that her achievements are construed as passive and magical, while his are coded as merit-based.”

 

People like to laugh at Daenerys’ long list of titles, and sure, it is a bit much. But each of those titles represents a battle she had to win. Jon Snow is merely that, as Ser Davos Seaworth remarked when he introduced the two early in season seven.

 

Daenerys thinks she should rule because it’s her destiny, because she brought three dragons to life—something that ought to have been impossible; that was, in essence, a miracle. Jon doesn’t want to rule, and therefore he should.

 

There is one scene in “The Last of the Starks” that Loofbourow points to as an illustration of just how unfair this narrative tack is. Tormund Giantsbane is toasting to Jon in the great hall of Winterfell, but all the qualities he lists also belong to Daenerys. The camera cuts back and forth between the cheerfully drunk Tormund and the solemn Daenerys, who would clearly love to take credit for her accomplishments, but can’t because it will make her seem too proud in front of an audience who is already poised to be suspicious of her.

 

If this doesn’t sound familiar, it should.

 

I’m not saying that Daenerys is the right choice. She’s made plenty of mistakes in the past, and her path to the throne thus far has been paved in the bodies of people of colour—the Dothraki, the Unsullied, and the citizens of Slaver’s Bay. But that doesn’t mean she deserves to have the mechanics of the narrative turned against her at the last minute so Jon Snow can take credit for what she has achieved.

 

Nor is Dany the only woman thrust aside in favour of Jon. In the seventh season, Jon was proclaimed King in the North even though the so-called Battle of the Bastards was won not by him but by the last-minute arrival of Sansa Stark leading the armies of the Vale. It was Sansa who cut a deal with everyone’s least-favorite snake oil salesman, Littlefinger, and saved the day. All Jon did was throw everyone’s plans into disarray by impulsively charging into battle. That’s hardly a good advertisement for his leadership skills.

 

(Not to mention the awful exchange I referenced in my recap of the episode where, instead of taking full—deserved—credit for her own survival, Sansa implied that her power derived from her physical and psychological abuse by Littlefinger and Ramsay Bolton. Sansa deserves better. So do we.)

 

And while I buy the interpretation that Jon successfully distracted Viserion the ice dragon by screaming at him precisely so that Arya could duck into the godswood to deliver the final coup-de-grace to the Night King and win the battle against the White Walkers…well, Arya was the one who won the war, wasn’t she? Why doesn’t she get an accolade from Tormund Giantsbane? Why is her only “reward” that Gendry asks her to marry him?

 

Both Sansa and Arya have come out in favour of Jon taking the Iron Throne. They have ample reason for it within the narrative; Jon is their half-brother/cousin, and from a political standpoint, if their aim is for an independent Kingdom of the North, he’s their likeliest route to that end.

 

Varys and Tyrion, on the other hand, make no sense within the narrative. They’ve only turned against Daenerys because the writers want Jon to win. The writers are even resorting to nonsensical excuses—that Daenerys “forgot about the Iron Fleet.” Even if Daenerys herself did—which is unlikely at best—Tyrion and Varys wouldn’t. And unless they’re deliberately trying to sabotage the queen they claim to serve, it reflects none too well on either of them that Daenerys has lost the second of her three dragons and one of her closest supporters, Missandei, to a cheap parlour trick.

 

(And don’t start me on how shamefully Missandei has been treated. As others, including Ava DuVernay, have pointed out, other women got to go out fighting, while Missandei–the only named woman of colour on the show–was executed in chains. That speaks volumes about the writers and the showrunners, and none of it is flattering.)

 

Game of Thrones has always had a poor record on its race and gender representation. We’ve always known that. But, having come this far on the promise of powerful, charismatic women, it’s especially disappointing to see them all being thrown aside for a white guy who knows nothing.

 

But, then again, that’s just like real life, isn’t it?

Game of Thrones 8×04 – The Personal is Political

Between the New York Times writeup in the morning and the fourth episode of Game of Thrones Season 8 in the evening, it was a rough day for those of us with an interest in medieval and medieval-ish things. Plenty has been said regarding both, but I found myself contemplating the commonalities between my frustrations and that’s what this recap will, to some extent, be about.

 

I did appreciate how “The Last of the Starks” took some time to linger on the aftermath of the Battle of Winterfell, though some of the omissions were deeply bothersome. Any reference, for instance, to “the remaining Dothraki” felt like an afterthought. We got no sense that anyone acknowledged just how many of the Dothraki had perished in that first, fatal charge, or how the remaining members of the khalasar felt about it. Not a single Dothraki soldier had any screentime, aside from those early shots of funeral pyres burning outside the walls of Winterfell. They did nothing to take away from the overall sense that the Dothraki were, as they have always been, expendable.

 

Most of the Winterfell scenes were given over to tying up various loose ends between characters before everyone headed south, but I kept getting distracted by how hard the script was working to make us hate Daenerys Targaryen. Perhaps this was carelessness on the writers’ part rather than intentional sloppiness on hers, but her elevation of Gendry to the lordship of Storm’s End opened with a remark that Robert Baratheon had rebelled against his king because of a woman who didn’t want him.

 

I’ve ranted elsewhere about the show’s insistence that Daenerys doesn’t know her own family history, but this seems to be less about her and more about the oversimplification of Westeros’ history on the show. Robert’s Rebellion was not about Lyanna Stark, nor was it—as Bran would have us believe—“built on a lie.” Robert’s Rebellion was what happened when a ruling monarch started murdering his own subjects without cause, setting them on fire in the middle of his court. Although it ultimately spiraled out of control and led to thousands of deaths, both military and civilian, the initial rebellion was completely, 100% justified.

 

In any event, having Daenerys glibly dismiss an entire war in one of the locations where that war desperately mattered made me annoyed with her, even if that wasn’t what the writers intended by her line. And on top of the many other choices that were deliberately intended to turn viewers against her and nudge them further toward Jon, it stuck out.

 

The most obvious one is Varys turning on her. In the books, he’s never been with her, so it doesn’t surprise me that the showrunners had to figure out a way to separate them, but to have Varys suddenly decide that Jon is the better claimant only called attention to how sloppy the writing has been on Daenerys for the past few seasons. Varys literally travelled halfway across the world to join her counsel, and they even had that moment early in Season Seven where he at least alluded to her father’s madness and promised to help her avoid going down that path. For him to just drop her in favour of Jon is irritating to say the least, and smacks of lazy, sloppy writing.

 

Jon not wanting to be king is a clear sign that he shouldn’t be. The whole damn series started with Robert Baratheon admitting that he hated being king, and the piss-poor job he did as king bore witness to that. He happened to have a very good Hand in Jon Arryn, but even still, his council was packed with self-interested climbers (e.g. Littlefinger) who, despite any protestations they might make, cared more for themselves than for the realm at large.

 

Has Daenerys made a lot of mistakes? Yes, she has. But so has Jon. One of his biggest is in this episode. The whole point of having a secret identity is that it’s a secret. Bran and Sam know because they’re the ones who found it out, but there was zero reason for Jon to tell Sansa and Arya aside from personal ones. And if we’re going to throw Daenerys under the bus for mixing the political and the personal (c.f. her almost inevitable decision to set King’s Landing on fire because Cersei killed Missandei), Jon has to go with her.

 

Sansa’s decision to reveal Jon’s parentage has little to do with her personal relationship with Jon and everything to do with her status as Lady of Winterfell. Her goal is to separate the North from the rest of the Seven Kingdoms, and the best way to achieve that goal is to support a monarch willing to make that break. She already broached the subject with Daenerys, who, true to the show’s completely sketchy writing of her in the past two seasons, refused to even consider it. So it makes perfect sense that Sansa would use other means to achieve her goals. What impact this will have on Arya remains to be seen, but I suspect that Arya will use the information to turn Gendry against Daenerys later on, thus losing Daenerys the Lord of Storm’s End.

 

The show needs to stop trying to separate the personal and the political. For Sansa to claim–as she does in her conversation with Sandor Clegane–that she somehow needed to be horribly abused and gaslighted by Littlefinger and Ramsay Bolton to become the person she is now is atrocious. It couldn’t be more obvious that Benioff and Weiss don’t know the first goddamn thing about writing women, because nobody who has been through that kind of trauma would say that. Nobody.

 

And that brings us to the final act of the episode, where Eurion Greyjoy’s magical teleportation powers and plot armour once again swoop in to ruin Daenerys’ plotline. First and foremost, why the hell does Daenerys not have scouting ships after Euron’s first attack on her last season? Did we learn nothing at all? Also, how did she not see Euron’s ships from dragonback? And, lastly, why did Drogon not just barbecue Euron as soon as Rhaegal went down? We’ve seen how far dragonfire can reach. Euron should be charred meat by now, not grinning by Cersei’s side.

 

But none of this matters because the showrunners want Daenerys to bring fire and blood to King’s Landing so that Jon can sweep in to save the day. This is why Daenerys’ fleet gets destroyed yet again for phenomenally stupid reasons. This is why more people of colour are unceremoniously slaughtered in the background. This is why we had to end with the not at all shocking and wholly gratuitous murder of Missandei.

 

The personal is political and the political is personal. It is for Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow; it is for all three Lannisters; and it is for me. My choice to study medieval literature and history was, initially, a personal one. I found the period fascinating and wanted to learn more about it. But, as I learned more, it became political. It became about finding invisible women in texts written by men and calling attention to them. It became about dissecting modern medievalisms to determine why we can’t move past our outdated conceptions of what the medieval world looked like and using our imaginations to create better versions of that world. And, at least in the case of Game of Thrones, it became about articulating my frustrations with a text that I have loved for a long time that is now being warped to fit the narrative vision of a pair of unimaginative white dudes who cannot conceive of just how smart and diverse their audience is.

 

I’m not going to ragequit Game of Thrones this close to the end, nor am I going to ragequit medieval studies. But both need to do a whole hell of a lot better.

Game of Thrones: Endgame

Yes, I’m crossing my geek streams, but there we go.

 

I’ve had some time to think about the pacing and structural choices in this season of Game of Thrones a bit more, so I’m going to put those thoughts out there.

 

I’ve remarked elsewhere that I wasn’t entirely convinced by the choice to finish the battle with the Armies of the Dead three seasons in, and basically consign the supernatural threat to the dustbin with three episodes left.

 

However…I’ve talked it over with a few people and thought about it, and there are ways for it to work. I don’t know that the show is taking any of these directions, but I’d be curious to see if they did.

 

First, now that the Battle for the Dawn is over, the human alliance at Winterfell needs to actually sit down and resolve their disputes. They’ve banded together to defeat an enormous, powerful foe, and while they certainly ought to celebrate their victory (and honour those who died[1]), they also need to hash out their differences. These include:

 

  • Is the North an independent kingdom? I’m of the opinion that they’ve earned it. Yes, Daenerys’ dragons helped, and everyone in Winterfell would likely be dead without them, but it was a Northerner who ultimately finished off the Night King, and Arya is well within her rights to demand Northern independence in exchange for her achievement.
  • What happens to the remaining Unsullied and Dothraki? They’re sworn to Daenerys, but once the fighting is over, what do they get in return? Lots of gold and free passage back to Essos? Lands and titles in Westeros? Someone needs to think about this. Similar questions about the wildlings apply.
  • Are there still going to be Seven Kingdoms after the battles are won? Can Daenerys reconcile herself to the possibility that the throne she seeks may no longer exist and be satisfied with that? If she’s really invested in “breaking the wheel,” as she claimed in Season Five (of cursed memory), surely this is exactly how one breaks the wheel.

 

And, of course, there’s the question of Cersei. We already know she’s acting in bad faith and that she’s still got the Golden Company, Euron’s Iron Fleet, and presumably some fairly large contingent of Lannister soldiers down near King’s Landing. Daenerys also has a fleet, and based on the preview for next week’s episode, it looks like she’s sailing to King’s Landing.

 

I still hope that we don’t end up with Daenerys and Jon fighting it out for the Iron Throne. Jon has shown zero interest in being a king up to this point, and to have him suddenly join the game of thrones seems antithetical to his character. He is still a Stark, and no matter which of his siblings takes over Winterfell (I’m on Team Sansa, obviously), an alliance between him and Daenerys would make a lot of sense to cement whatever agreement is made between the North and the Iron Throne (or what’s left of it).

 

If we look at the rest of the Seven Kingdoms, we still have some portion of the army of the Vale left (I think?), which is nominally under control of Robert Arryn. As far as I could tell in the dim lighting, Gendry is still alive, and could therefore potentially lay claim to Storm’s End as Robert’s son (and with Davos’ assistance) in the absence of any other Baratheon contender. The Lannisters are a hot mess, but Tyrion is definitely still around and is the obvious choice to take over Casterly Rock. Which leaves the Reach and the Riverlands mostly destroyed, but perhaps more willing to accept Daenerys’ overlordship in exchange for the protection of her dragons. Dorne…they’ve been through enough. Let’s just leave them be.

 

So I guess my top choice for an endgame to Game of Thrones is an amicable split of the Seven Kingdoms and some sort of alliance between Daenerys and Jon that puts the North and the restored Targaryens on more or less equal footing.

[1] Please spare all the thoughts for the Dothraki who were so poorly served by whoever was in charge of battle planning. They clearly chose gorgeous visuals (and, yes, they were gorgeous) over effective strategy.

Game of Thrones 8×03 The Long Night

…well, I didn’t see that coming.

 

No, seriously, I did not see that coming. Did not see the Night King dying three episodes into the final season. Granted, there are only six episodes in total, so maybe that’s less surprising than it feels. But still. I need to process this fully.

 

I will say they did a great job foreshadowing Arya’s triumph throughout the episode. All the lingering shots, the moments with her, Beric, and Melisandre especially. And it does make sense that Arya is the person the Night King would overlook. He’s so fixated on Jon and Dany (not without reason) that Arya the assassin completely slips by. And, okay, I loved that she dropped the blade and picked it up with the other hand. That was some badassery right there. And 100% in character.

 

I loved all the callbacks between Arya and Melisandre. Honestly, Mel’s reappearance in this episode was pretty excellent all round. She did what she meant to do all along—she fought off the Night King (whose realm is dark and full of terrors), saved Winterfell, and now her watch is ended. And I liked that Davos was the one who saw her in the end; it brings their conflict to a good close.

 

I had hoped that someone (Sansa? Tyrion? Varys?) would pick up on the idea that hiding in the crypts, a place that is by definition full of dead bodies, is a bad idea. But nobody seemed to get that until it was too late. Unless Varys did, and that’s how he was able to save all those kids. I would not put that past him at all. All the moments between Tyrion and Sansa were lovely.

 

I don’t know anything about military tactics, but it seemed to me that all the POC in this show got short shrift. The Dothraki had an impressive start but got taken down in seconds; the Unsullied lasted a bit longer, but mainly existed to save white people. I’m fairly sure that both Missandei and Grey Worm survived (thankfully), but seriously, that was a lot of non-white characters being slaughtered, in some cases twice over.

 

(Also, I know everyone was complaining about the lighting in the episode, but seriously, I could barely see a thing during most of the outdoor battle scenes. At least the indoor ones were somewhat better lit.)

 

My husband and I had made a variety of predictions of who among the main and supporting characters was going to die in this episode, and three of our choices appear to have hit: Jorah Mormont, Theon Greyjoy, and Beric Dondarrion. I had pegged Sam for dead but am glad he’s still around. Was worried about Brienne and I’m very relieved she didn’t die.

 

But I guess my main quibble is this: how is this not the climactic battle? Are we meant to view Cersei as the Big Bad, or is she just the dregs to be cleaned up afterward? I’ve seen a lot of people on Twitter throwing around the Scouring of the Shire, and, depending on how they frame it in the episodes to come, that may well be an accurate assessment. But it does seem a bit…early…for the Long Night to come to an end. On the other hand, the show cut most, if not all, of the prophecies from the books, so it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me if the books flip the order of the battles so that King’s Landing comes first and Winterfell second. The end result will, presumably, remain more or less the same, but the thematic push would be different.

 

Given that we opened the series (book and TV) with the White Walkers, it does seem strange that we don’t close with them, that the death of the Night King isn’t the major catharsis at the end. But I’ll be curious to see where things go from here.

 

My money is still on Jaime being the one to kill Cersei, and I at least think Bronn will finish him with Chekhov’s Lannister Crossbow more or less as soon as he does the deed. Jaime and Cersei came into the world together; I don’t see them leaving any other way. What I want is for Yara to kill Euron, just for a nice bit of closure, but I don’t hold out too much hope for that, unless she reappears in the next episode to join Daenerys and Jon on their way south.

 

I guess, as per my recap of the previous episode, I just don’t want to see a pointless fight between Daenerys and Jon. It’s unworthy of both of them. Granted, if they take each other out, maybe that means the Seven Kingdoms split up into the separate territories they ought to have been in the first place. We’ll just have to see how things go.

Game of Thrones 8×02: The Absent Weight of History

A bit late, but here it is!

 

A certain feeling has persisted from the opening of Game of Thrones’ seventh season of the characters on the show operating as a kind of elaborate human chessboard, appearing and disappearing wherever the plot requires them to be with no sense of journey or motivation (not to mention a complete lack of travel logistics, but that’s another story). This leads to a lot of frustrating inconsistency, as I can see the larger touchpoints in the narrative, but none of the emotional highs feel earned at all; they just happen.

 

There were lovely moments in this episode—Brienne and Arya for a start—but what stood out to me was how much history loomed over everyone, and nobody remarked upon it.

 

We open with Jaime Lannister standing before Daenerys, Sansa, and Jon, explaining exactly what he’s doing in Winterfell. Or, more accurately, we open with Daenerys relating a “bedtime story” she used to hear from her elder brother Viserys about Jaime’s murder of their father King Aerys II, the act that earned him his nickname Kingslayer.

This, on its own, is not a problem, but it does highlight a major lacuna in Daenerys’ storyline in the show. As far as I can tell, she has no idea what her father was—namely, a psychotic murderer and pyromaniac who was justifiably killed by Jaime at the end of a war that he himself started.  [EDIT: Barristan does tell Dany some general info about her father’s awfulness in “The House of Black and White” (5.02), but not the specifics.] The fact that Daenerys is not just any Targaryen, but the Mad King’s daughter is what underlies the suspicion with which she is viewed in the North. After all, Aerys’ first act of war was to murder Lord Rickard Stark of Winterfell and his eldest son and heir Brandon. He then demanded the heads of Eddard Stark and Robert Baratheon for no reason whatsoever. Anyone from the North, the Stormlands, or the Eyrie has perfectly legitimate reasons to distrust Daenerys, and that is the majority of people currently in Winterfell (the remnants of Stannis Baratheon’s Stormlands army, the force brought by Littlefinger from the Eyrie, and the forces gathered from the North itself).

There have been brief moments where Daenerys talks with other characters about her brother Rhaegar, namely Jorah Mormont and Barristan Selmy. But while she’s discussed Aerys’ crimes in general with Barristan, and Barristan has warned her that her father saw what he did as justice, as far as the viewer is aware, she doesn’t know the specifics of what he did to the Starks. And this is a big problem for her. Aerys is the reason for Robert’s Rebellion—not Rhaegar and Lyanna, although Lyanna’s disappearance played a part in the events that followed. And for Daenerys to show up in the North and demand allegiance from people whose fathers, brothers, and other relatives died as a result of her father’s cruelty is ignorance of the highest degree. Why has nobody told her? Tyrion at least should have mentioned it; he may not have been there personally, but he knows his history. Jaime has only revealed the full truth of Aerys’ murder to Brienne, and maybe it is for her to reveal it to Sansa and Daenerys, but given the advent of the Army of the Dead, it’s not as though anyone has time for that now.

 

The show also missed a great opportunity in the scene between Sansa and Daenerys. Sansa may not be as educated as Tyrion, but she also knows her history (or, at least, she does it in the books). When Daenerys demands the North’s loyalty and Sansa quietly but firmly refuses, it was the perfect moment for her to point out that the last time a Targaryen demanded a personal pledge of loyalty from a Stark, the Stark ended up burned alive. It makes no sense for Daenerys to have arrived in Westeros without full knowledge of exactly how and why her family had lost the Iron Throne, but there is no indication that she knows any of this beyond whatever rose-coloured fantasies Viserys spun for her when they were children.

 

It’s especially jarring in an episode that is constantly making reference to history as a larger concept. Bran’s conviction that the Night King wants to destroy him personally since he, as the Three-Eyed Raven, is now a repository of the human history of Westeros, is a chilling observation. The Army of the Dead is effective in part because none of them remember who they were, but the living do remember. And Pod’s beautiful rendition of “Jenny of Oldstones” calls up an entire host of historical and prophetic signifiers that the show has never at any point elaborated on.

For those who don’t know, Jenny of Oldstones is a historical character from less than a century before the start of the Game of Thrones narrative. She was a peasant girl with some sort of supernatural ability, and at some point, the heir to the throne, Prince Duncan Targaryen, fell in love with her. He broke his betrothal to the daughter of the Lord of Storm’s End to marry Jenny, and nearly brought the kingdom to war before he chose to abdicate his throne in order to stay with his love. Jenny and her Prince of Dragonflies are often evoked alongside Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark as examples of doomed love affairs; Prince Duncan died shortly afterward in a disastrous fire at the Targaryen palace of Summerhall that also claimed many other members of his family (and possibly Jenny as well).

Jenny is also connected to prophecies, specifically the prophecy of the Prince Who Was Promised. While the full significance of this prophecy has not yet been revealed in the books, its outlines suggest a character capable of driving back the Long Night and the White Walkers. Jenny is said to have been friends with a woods witch, who prophesied that this promised prince would be born from the Targaryen line. The heir to the throne, Jaehaerys, and his sister-wife Shaera were so convinced that they forced their children Aerys and Rhaella into an early (and ultimately unhappy) marriage in hopes of producing that prince. In the books, Rhaegar Targaryen, the son of Aerys and Rhaella, is obsessed with this prophecy, to the point that he claims his son Aegon (not Jon Snow, but Rhaegar’s son with Elia Martell) is that prince, and that “his is the song of ice and fire.”

 

By evoking Jenny of Oldstones this late in the game, the show is making a nod to this entire untold history. It’s a beautiful moment whether or not one has the context, but to me it was also bittersweet, since there is so much weight to it that just hasn’t been addressed in the show. Is it meant to signify that the Prince Who Was Promised has entered the narrative? If so, is it Jon or is it Daenerys? In the books, Daenerys is the likely candidate, but the show has thus far shown a remarkable lack of imagination on that front, pushing all of Daenerys’ arc aside in pursuit of the idea of Jon as the One True Heir.

 

Which brings me to my main problem with that whole thing. I have a lot of problems with it—the inconsistencies, the erasure of a murdered woman of color and her two biracial children, the amazingly problematic power dynamic in the Rhaegar/Lyanna relationship, etc.—but the biggest issue is in fact a thematic one.

A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones alike are looking to subvert a variety of traditional fantasy tropes, and one of those tropes is the idea of the One True King. We’ve already seen that trope undermined several times in the narrative—Robb as King in the North murdered at the Red Wedding, Melisandre convincing herself that Stannis was the Prince Who Was Promised only to realize she’s wrong when the magic doesn’t work as it’s meant to. So, when the show starts pushing Jon as the One True King who will actually succeed, it feels cheap, especially after Jon’s arc as the guy who doesn’t want to be in charge. Even when he’s acclaimed King in the North, he agrees to it because his goal is to stop the White Walkers, not because he wants to be king. To have him suddenly gung-ho about taking the Iron Throne as the True King does his character a disservice.

 

There is no one true narrative; if there’s one theme that runs through the books, it is that truth and history are subjective. We’ll probably never get a concrete account of Robert’s Rebellion because it doesn’t exist. Everyone was fighting for a different reason and none of those reasons match up. Similarly, we’ll never get a concrete account of the War of the Five Kings, because one of the biggest thematic concerns in A Song of Ice and Fire is that there are no Good Guys and Bad Guys; there are just people trying to make the best decisions under the circumstances. The show has mistakenly translated this into “everyone is grey, nobody’s good or bad, so we’re going to spend a lot of time with horrible people because somehow we’ve decided they’re more interesting.” But by trying to shoehorn in the idea that there is a single correct answer to all of Westeros’ problems and his name is Jon Snow, the show just ends up undermining so much of the emotional and thematic work of the earlier seasons.

 

There’s also the fact that the only two examples we have of kings who inherited the throne from their fathers are Aerys II and Joffrey.[1] Neither of these guys is a good advertisement for lineal succession. By all means, elect Jon king because you think he’s the right man for the job, but by pushing him into this mould of “legitimate” kingship is a step down for his character. Yes, it’s probably nice to know that he’s not a bastard, but for all intents and purposes, Ned Stark was his father. Ned is the one who raised him, who taught him to be honourable and just and loyal, to pay attention to those around him, to forge bonds with his followers. Everything we like about Jon Snow is the product of his upbringing in Winterfell, not his Targaryen bloodline.

 

Daenerys also gets a raw deal in this situation. Her entire arc has been pointing in the direction of her being the force destined to take down the White Walkers. She may think she’s aiming at the Iron Throne, but unlike, say, Cersei, Daenerys is able to see the bigger picture and knows that she has a more important place in the metaphysical narrative than the political one. On a related note, as much as I love Samwell Tarly—and I do—I think he’s condemning Daenerys a bit too harshly for her actions; we’ve seen pretty much all the other monarchs on this show commit similar atrocities, and while I know we aren’t meant to view her actions as positive, I can’t help but feel that she’s getting more criticism than a man would have done in her position. And Daenerys makes the valid point that Jon is getting this supposed confirmation of his royal status from his brother and his best friend; much like Sansa is justified in mistrusting Daenerys’ motives, I don’t think Daenerys is wrong to side-eye Jon for this eleventh-hour revelation.

 

All of this being said (and, yes, I know I’ve rambled), this episode also gave us the long-awaited coming together of Arya and Gendry, a short-but-sweet encounter between Missandei and Grey Worm, and a truly lovely sequence where Brienne was not only fully accepted just as she is, but also knighted, and I’m not ashamed to admit I teared up a little at that point. But, show, if this means you intend to kill Missandei, Grey Worm, or Brienne next episode, I will be Most Displeased.[2]

 

In any event, we’ll see where things go. But I was really feeling the lack of historical groundedness in this episode.

[1] Yes, we know that Joffrey is actually Jaime and Cersei’s son, but that is never officially declared in either the books or the show, so “Joffrey Baratheon” does, strictly speaking, inherit the throne from his father.

[2] I don’t think Arya will die, for what that’s worth.

Game of Thrones 8×01

Okay, here goes nothing.

 

I love the new opening credits. Makes sense given that we are now focused on two locations—Winterfell and King’s Landing. Well, aside from that brief foray to Last Hearth and the super creepy death of baby Lord Umber…although, between the cute echo of Arya at the beginning and the reveal of who he was, as soon as he said he was going back to Last Hearth, I knew he was in for it.

 

YAY FOR MY STARKLINGS TOGETHER AGAIN. YAY for Arya acknowledging that Sansa is clever! YAY for Arya and Jon having a moment and comparing swords because of course that’s what they’d do. (Less yay for him complaining about Sansa, but I love Arya defending her.) And yay for Jon getting to hug Bran after all this time, even if Bran is not really Bran anymore.

 

Also yay for Yara somehow still being alive and no longer stuck with Euron! I confess that after the timey-wimey antics of last season, I have absolutely no clue how much time has passed and how long it takes anyone to get anywhere, but I am still happy that Theon figured his shit out and Yara is on her way back to Pyke where she can do her thing and be left the hell alone.

 

This episode was mostly about reunions. The ones we didn’t quite get last season. Arya and Gendry cautiously prodding one another, echoing lines from seasons ago while being well aware of how far they’ve journeyed since then and how much trauma lies between them. Can they bridge that gap? Who knows? And, let’s be honest, how much time do they have before the Army of the Dead shows up anyway? (And I did love the brief spar between Arya and the Hound.)

 

The scene between Tyrion and Sansa was very good and I wish it had gone on longer. There is so much unsaid between those two that ought to be said. But I did love her parting words about Cersei. She knows, even if Tyrion doesn’t—or knows, but desperately wants to believe better of his sister when the end of the known world is at hand.

 

I hope they aren’t taking the route of Sansa being jealous of Daenerys because she’s a glamorous dragon queen or something stupid like that. She made a 100% valid point about food stores and logistics and it would be very easy to frame her hostility as “we planned around protecting the North against the Army of the Dead, not mounting a major military offensive,” which would be completely reasonable. Making the other Northerners hostile does support this reading; after all, the last time a Targaryen got involved in Northern affairs, thousands of people died. One can’t really blame them for being cagey about Daenerys, given the history and the context.

 

I think all the emphasis on Jon leaving Winterfell as King in the North and returning as Daenerys’ subject—and lover—is less about titles and more about how trustworthy the Northerners think Jon is. They gave him their allegiance and he promptly handed it off to someone else. Obviously that’s not how Jon sees it—he sees it along the same lines as his alliance with the wildlings when he was Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch—but we as viewers also know how well that went down with the Night’s Watch. I just hope he doesn’t end up with yet another dagger through the heart, as I can’t see him coming back from that a second time.

 

Jon and Daenerys were cute together. I’ll give them that. The dragon riding scene was lovely. And, by Targaryen standards, it’s not that weird. Admittedly, by any other standard,[1] it’s pretty damn weird. Davos ships them too, clearly. It looks like they’ve dialed back the implication that Tyrion is jealous and I hope it stays that way. I like Tyrion and Daenerys as allies and friends, not potential romantic partners. (Dear show, not all male/female relationships need to be about romance and/or sex, sincerely yours, me.)

 

Of course, that’s all about to blow up in everybody’s faces, though I’ll get to that later because I have hills upon which I intend to die.

 

Interesting that Cersei did end up sleeping with Euron, though I’m curious to find out whether or not her purported pregnancy is real or if it was something she made up to provoke Jaime. It’s not out of character—or at least it wouldn’t have been out of character several seasons ago. Not sure how I feel about it now. He did bring her an army, and he did make it pretty clear that he could take said army away unless she gives him what he wants. But one of the advantages—arguably—in being queen in her own right is that she no longer needs to use her body as currency. I don’t know. I also just don’t see the appeal of Euron.[2] I appreciate, at least, that Cersei doesn’t seem especially enthused about him post-sex. There was some great side-eye in that scene.

 

I’m not at all surprised that Cersei enlists Bronn to do away with her brothers. Bronn is known for having no loyalties other than to whoever pays him. It makes him very easy to deal with. As for the Golden Company, they’re an interesting addition this late in the game, especially with no context other than “random mercenaries.” The show is clearly dropping the whole Blackfyre thing since there’s no way for them to backfill that much history in such a short plot space. In any event, we’ll see where that goes, if anywhere.

 

I’m of two minds about Sam’s reaction to the deaths of Lord Randyll and Dickon. Dickon, I can understand, but Sam’s father was an abusive nightmare of a man who made his life miserable. I’ll be curious to see if they delve further into his processing of those deaths. If his concern truly is the fact that Daenerys executed prisoners for the “crime” of not bending the knee, that’s a valid concern. Indeed, even at the time, her choice to execute them was not exactly framed positively. It was, one might say, a very Cersei thing to do.

 

Which brings me to the hill on which I intend to die. Jon Snow is not Aegon Targaryen. And this isn’t just a book thing. Even on the show, Aegon Targaryen was murdered by Gregor Clegane during the Sack of King’s Landing. Varys makes mention of it early on and specifically names Aegon as Rhaegar Targaryen’s dead son. It’s just really damn sloppy writing. Even if Jon were legitimized, that wouldn’t be his name. There are plenty of other Targaryen names on offer.

 

Also, I really, really dislike the implication that Lyanna Stark chose to name her son Aegon, as though she intended to replace the one who died in King’s Landing. The show has already done Elia Martell an awful disservice through that stupid annulment plot point,[3] in spite of how much of a fan favorite her brother Oberyn was and how devastated everyone was when he died in Season 4 while screaming her name and demanding vengeance for her rape and murder. Again, it’s sloppy writing and it’s sloppy writing that erases women of color from a story where they’re already scarce. I know we’re already far enough into this nonsense that it can’t be changed, but I’m not going to stop being irritated about it.

 

…and then we have Bran and Jaime meeting for the first time since “the things I do for love.” That won’t be awkward at all.

[1] Jaime and Cersei don’t count. Ever.

[2] Also, I miss Eldritch Apocalypse Euron. I just do. The show’s version is just so…blah.

[3] And this is a book thing, but there is zero indication in the books that Rhaegar intended to set aside his wife and delegitimize the two children he already had. The whole point was that he thought he needed three children, not for the succession, but because of the prophecy that “the dragon needs three heads” to beat back the Long Winter. If it doesn’t make sense, that’s probably because we’re meant to take Rhaegar’s actions with a lot of scepticism; even if he was acting for what he believed was the greater good, his actions caused a civil war and the deaths of thousands of innocent people, including his wife and both of his children.

On Academic Fashion and Identity

Perhaps against my better judgement, I was inspired by the following Twitter thread to consider academic fashion and my own relationship to it.

Now, Aaron and I have known one another since grad school (he was a year or two behind me in the same program, if in a different field), so I’m aware that he didn’t intend to be prescriptivist in his thread, and that his goal was to elucidate his own experience as a white cis male who looks younger than he is. Nor am I trying to be prescriptivist here, so much as talk about my own experience with style, fashion, la mode, what have you. Which is to say that anyone who wants to comment about their own experience and offer suggestions based on that is encouraged to do so. I know that women’s fashion (and fashion in general) is especially challenging for plus-size people and people with disabilities, so any suggestions on that front would be especially welcome. I’m coming at this as a cis woman who spent most of her life thinner than average, so my experience is very much my own and may not translate to others.

Pretty much anyone reading this is probably aware of the following, but I’m going to reiterate it anyway:

  1. I am contingent faculty when I’m teaching. At this exact moment, I am on self-imposed “maternity leave,” which is a fancy term for being unemployed with a baby since I live in the United States and we don’t believe in parental leave (eyeroll). I’m still publishing, but nobody is paying me (luckily, I have a spouse with a Real Job™). I’m still on the job market, technically, but, well, that is its own can of worms.
  2. I am a woman of colour and am not in the least bit white-passing. I used to joke that one could find me on a map at the International Congress of Medieval Studies or the Shakespeare Association of America conference, but now I am aware of several other South Asian women who attend these conferences, and have been mistaken for at least one of them. (Note: We don’t look anything alike.)

These two factors influence my fashion choices in different ways. As contingent faculty, I don’t feel that I have the freedom to “dress down.” I always have to look polished and put together, to look “professional.” Most advice for academics, particularly for women, tends to fall into that pattern. Never mind that the very concept of “professional” clothing has classist, racist, and sexist implications. The prevalence of suits as default academic dress for all genders exists for the same reason that it exists in law, finance, or business: academia was–and, to a large extent, remains–a white, male-dominated space, so the default setting for “professionalism” is “look like a white man.” C.f. this thread:

I won’t say that I’m a fashion aficionado. I’m not. I like what I like, and what I like is inevitably at least 3 years out of date.* If not possibly 50 or 100 years out of date, depending on what it is. What I am is someone with a pretty well-defined sense of personal style, honed over about two decades. If I had to describe it, I’d call it about 30% Audrey Hepburn, 20% Goth, 20% Victorian dandy, and 30% Too tired to do anything right now because I have two small children.

Anyway. You’re probably here for advice. I’m bad at advice, but I’ll do my best. I’ve already produced this Twitter thread that distills what I’m going to elaborate on here:

First thing, women’s fashion is a pain in the rear. It just is. Sizes aren’t standardized between labels, there’s no rhyme or reason to how things are measured, and some styles are just deeply confusing (I, for one, do not understand cold shoulder tops. Not even a little. What is the point? Also tulip skirts. Literally nobody looks good in them. Why can’t they just go away?). When I buy clothing for my husband, everything more or less makes sense. There are actual measurements involved. This is partly why I started buying men’s jeans for myself (also pockets). There’s something so reassuring about knowing that waist measurement is consistent no matter which brand I’m buying.

It’s also very hard to buy clothing ethically. I do my best, but between budget constraints, size constraints, and style preferences, it is challenging to say the least. I do think that buying clothing secondhand helps from a sustainability perspective, and I try to pay attention to the brands that I buy frequently and to be aware of trends they’ve exhibited as pertain to both labor and environmental issues.

For instance, I stopped shopping at H&M for several years because it came out that their labor practices were deeply questionable and they ran an ad campaign that was, to put it bluntly, racist. However, since then, they’ve started offering textile recycling at their stores, so I’m at least willing to see what they have to offer while dropping off my worn-out stuff for recycling.

Which is all to say that if buying ethically is important to you, go for it, and there are a number of brands who make their manufacturing and environmental policies abundantly clear, but if you’re dealing with a limited budget, be fair to yourself and do your best within your parameters.

But that’s enough complaints. Let’s talk about academic fashion.

I think I’ve owned one suit that I was happy with–a J. Crew Super 120s wool suit in navy with white pinstripes. I bought the skirt new on clearance and got the matching jacket and trousers used on eBay. I even own a blouse that works for it–a cream silk shell from White House Black Market that I also got on clearance for $10. This entire ensemble (which I’m wearing in my “official” headshot from 2017) took about three years to put together, but I’m also pleased to say that it doubles as excellent stealth Peggy Carter cosplay.

One of the things that helped me get past this mental block was a conversation with my friend and colleague EJ Nielsen, who remarked that conference attire was itself a form of cosplay. I’m an introvert by nature and it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that the self I present at conferences or while teaching is a character of sorts–a version of myself who is more confident, more outgoing, and more authoritative. With that in mind, thinking of conference (or interview or teaching) fashion as cosplay made it far easier to develop a distinct style that worked for me.

I’ve never not dressed up to teach. Even as a graduate student when I had single-student tutorials, I dressed nicer than usual because I knew I needed to in order to be taken seriously. Jacket, nice top, dressy trousers, heels. I still have those heels even though I’ve needed to replace the soles twice because I walked too much in them. (Got them for $30 at DSW after Christmas in 2008. I regret nothing.)

When I returned to the US after finishing my PhD in 2010, I taught part-time at three universities in the greater Washington DC area: Georgetown University, George Washington University, and the University of Maryland at College Park. I upped my fashion game so I didn’t look shabbier than my students, some of whom had more pocket money than I made in a year. So I stocked up on dresses and jackets from a variety of clearance racks and invested in a pair of lace-up knee-high boots that I still own (these are the updated version with a more rugged sole). I still get compliments on them, and they happen to be very comfortable and great for teaching. I also wore full makeup on teaching days (although I admit this got a bit spotty toward the end of the semester, especially in spring 2012 when I was teaching 4 classes across 2 universities that were on opposite sides of the city).

For me, the important thing for teaching is to be able to move in whatever I’m wearing. I tend to pace a lot and to wave my hands around, so I figured out that, with few exceptions,** pencil skirts and tight sheath dresses weren’t going to work for me. Thankfully, trends shifted from sheath to A-line and even full-skirted dresses, which made things easier for me.

If I’m dressing for conferences, I’m dressing to be noticed. As I mentioned in the Twitter thread, I realized relatively early on that, as a woman of colour straddling two predominantly white fields (medieval and early modern studies), I was going to stick out no matter what I did. So I decided to embrace it and indulge my more esoteric tastes. These include things like blood-red lipstick, metallic eye makeup, funky jewellery, Statement Shoes, and hats. I love hats. I refuse to let dudebros ruin trilbys (I’ve owned a red one since 2010, c.f. above about Peggy Carter cosplay), and I have a burgundy cloche (similar to this one) that is my go-to conference hat.

September 2016
Before an invited lecture at University of Nebraska-Lincoln in September 2016. Dress: eShakti; Earrings: 1928; Lipstick: Bite High Pigment Pencil in Scarlet under Besamé lipstick in Red Velvet; Eyes: Sephora Collection.
Wellesley College April 2017
After a lecture at Wellesley College in April 2017 (cropped out the student I was talking to for privacy). Dress: Banana Republic; Belt: Calvin Klein (secondhand); Jacket: Maeva, from Daffy’s; Earrings: Etsy; Shoes: Fluevog (secondhand).
Teaching 2018
Outfit and makeup for teaching History at Simmons College in spring semester 2018. Dress: Wallis, via Trunk Club; Earrings: Costco; Lipstick: Besamé Noir Red; Eyes: Urban Decay

If I had to give people advice (and I try to avoid that when possible), it would be to focus on intentionality. Whatever you choose to wear is great, so long as you commit to it. It can be something you bought for $5 off the clearance rack (I’ve done that) or a designer item that you splurged on (done that too), but what ultimately matters is that you’re comfortable in it and that you like it. Also that it fits. A good tailor is worth their weight in gold, and I’ve purposely bought things a size larger and had them tailored to fit me.

The other big piece of advice is to take advantage of secondhand/consignment markets. It’s easier than ever now with various online options–eBay, Poshmark, ThredUp, even social media groups. Or check out Goodwill, Salvation Army, or whatever other local options you have. Now is an especially good time to try, given the current KonMari craze and people ditching stuff that doesn’t spark joy*** in them.

A few other specific suggestions

TJMaxx/Marshalls: I used to make fun of my mother for shopping here when I was young and stupid. I am no longer young and stupid and both of these stores are amazing. Not just for clothing, but also for shoes, accessories, skincare, and makeup. I found several skincare and makeup items that retailed for twice the price at Sephora (and don’t get me wrong; I love Sephora, but they are not cheap).

Nordstrom Rack: I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve shopped at an actual Nordstrom (if you’ve never been fitted for a bra, I highly recommend them; their employees absolutely know what they’re doing), but I go to Nordstrom Rack several times a year and I use their website as well. They are great for all kinds of items, and they have epic sales at Black Friday, end-of-year and the middle of summer. I buy winter boots there in summer, for myself and for my daughters.

  • (Note: For anyone who shops at Nordstrom Rack, the Nordstrom credit card offers $100/year in free alterations for anything purchased at either a regular Nordstrom store or at Nordstrom Rack. Depending on how often you shop there, they also offer rewards for repeat customers.)

eShakti: One of my pipe dreams for a long time has been custom clothing made specifically for me. I still hope to manage a suit someday (and have several Etsy sellers bookmarked for this purpose), but in the meantime, eShakti gets me most of the way there for dresses.  Their designs are fun, they carry plus sizes, they are always having sales, and pretty much all of their dresses come standard with pockets. The only caveat I’d issue is that if you’re getting a long-sleeved dress, give them measurements of your arms to make sure the sleeves are wide enough.

 

* This is why online secondhand shopping is so dangerous. That random jacket I fell in love with in 2009 but couldn’t find in my size? Someone will sell it to me, possibly at a discount. The dress I bought one of when I ought to have bought three because it was perfection? On sale from someone else’s wardrobe. THE INTERNET IS A MARVEL, PEOPLE. It just also hates my bank account.

** The kickpleat is a wondrous thing.

** I’m aware that “joy” isn’t an exact translation of the term Kondo is using; it’s one of those Japanese words that doesn’t properly translate into English. She has specified in interviews that she refers to items that are meaningful.

In which I get angry about Mary Stuart

Yesterday, a piece appeared in The Guardian, written by Kevin McKenna, on “the enduring appeal of Mary, Queen of Scots.” Several things stood out, articulated wonderfully by my colleague Dr. Kathleen Kennedy on Twitter:

 

kk mary stuart tweet 2019.01.13

There are plenty of historians (because #womenalsoknowhistory) who could have been consulted on this topic and who could have provided a more nuanced explanation of Mary Stuart’s appeal without consigning her to utter political insignificance.

 

Because the fact is that Mary Stuart was not politically insignificant. Though she only ruled Scotland for a few short years, her influence pervaded politics in England and France for the last half of the sixteenth century and it was her son James Stuart who finally unified Scotland and England as James VI of Scotland and I of England, an accomplishment that, for better or worse, fundamentally altered the European landscape.

 

(And I say this as a lifelong fan of Elizabeth I: Mary Stuart’s reputation is both undeservedly bad and overly romanticized.)

François Clouet, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (c. 1558-60, Royal Collection)

Mary Stuart was the only daughter of James V of Scotland and Marie de Guise, the daughter of a powerful French family. Her father perished at the Battle of Solway Moss in 1542, making Mary queen of Scotland at six days old, and she was sent to France for her safety while her mother ruled Scotland as regent until her death in 1560. While in France, Mary was in the care of the Guise family, though she also spent time in the court of King Henri II and Queen Catherine de’ Medici. To shore up what was known as the Auld Alliance, Mary was betrothed to and eventually married the Dauphin François. They briefly ruled as King and Queen of France, but in 1561, François died, leaving Mary as a teenage dowager queen with only one choice. She had to return to Scotland—a country she had not seen since her birth—and take her throne.

 

All of this politicking happened within the context of the Wars of Religion. Mary was Catholic, and her connections to the French royal family only bolstered those religious ties. Scotland, in the meantime, was falling under the influence of Presbyterianism, and the Protestant leaders of that movement (most notably John Knox) were deeply suspicious of Mary, who represented three major threats to them: that she was female, raised in France, and Catholic.

 

The English suspected Mary for those reasons, plus one even more worrisome—that Mary, through her grandmother Margaret Tudor, had an indisputable claim to the English throne. When Mary arrived in Scotland late in 1561, Queen Elizabeth I had only been on the throne for two years. These two cousins were about nine years apart in age (Elizabeth born in 1533 and Mary in 1542), and both had grown up in turbulent circumstances that shaped them into the queens they became, but Mary’s legitimacy as Queen of Scotland had never been in question, while Elizabeth faced opposition for her entire life as a result of Henry VIII’s highly questionable marital choices.

 

Between this unquestioned legitimacy and her French Catholic upbringing, it is not surprising that Mary encouraged conspiracies designed to place her on the English throne. The French had everything to gain by encouraging political turmoil in England and had often used France’s alliance with Scotland for precisely that end; in turn, the Scots had no desire to be yoked to England, and were content to have their southern neighbor embroiled in civil war.

 

For several years, things remained in a stalemate. Neither queen was married and neither had an established heir. Then, in 1565, Mary married her English cousin (and Elizabeth’s), Henry Lord Darnley, who was himself within the English line of succession. Elizabeth and her advisors immediately feared that Mary intended to claim the throne and acted accordingly, encouraging rebellion against Mary from Scottish Protestants and, more indirectly, using propaganda to discredit her.

 

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scot, and Henry, Lord Darnley (Anon., c. 1565, at Hardwick Hall)

The marriage of Mary and Darnley was a complete disaster. Darnley was—to put it bluntly—a trashfire of a human being, arrogant and power-hungry, who made enemies of most of the Scottish nobility and, eventually, his own wife. He spread rumours about Mary having affairs, including one with her secretary David Rizzio, and then arranged Rizzio’s violent murder in March 1566, while Mary was six months pregnant with the future James VI/I.

 

Anonymous sketch of the manor of Kirk o’Field on the night of Darnley’s murder, 1567.

Mary gave birth to her son on 19 June 1566, and between her positions as queen, mother, and Catholic, she could not simply divorce Darnley. She met with several leading Scottish nobles in November 1566 to determine the best course of action, and Darnley, sensing the nature of that course of action, retreated to his father’s lands for fear of his life. Early in 1567, he was induced to return to Edinburgh. On 10 February of that year, an explosion occurred at his temporary residence, Kirk o’Field, and Darnley’s body was found in the garden, apparently suffocated.

 

Darnley’s death and its aftermath are simultaneously the most famous and the least known episodes in Mary Stuart’s life. We know that Mary ended up married to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, in May 1567, but it is unclear whether or not it was under her own power. Plenty of novelists—and more than a few historians and journalists, including the recent Guardian article—assume that Mary chose to marry Bothwell, a move that damaged her reputation beyond repair and sent her fleeing into England, ultimately to her death. In this era of #MeToo, we must acknowledge the possibility that when Mary was intercepted by Bothwell on her way to Edinburgh on 24 April 1567, she was, in fact, abducted against her will. Moreover, that her subsequent marriage to him does not denote consent so much as a conscious decision to make the best of her situation in an era where her reputation would have already been ruined by an assault.

 

Mary’s imprisonment and execution are more clearly documented, and recent historians have allowed that the evidence that led to her death may have been partly or even fully fabricated. Elizabeth’s own reluctance to sign Mary’s death warrant speaks to the murkiness of the situation, and the consequences of Mary’s execution reverberated across Europe, as the execution of another queen, Marie Antoinette, similarly did some two hundred years later.

 

What has persisted, thanks to Elizabethan and Protestant propaganda, and Lord Darnley’s smear campaign, is the perception of Mary Stuart as a helpless, clueless woman completely out of her depth, or, led by the men around her. Depending on who tells the story, this interpretation serves to either condemn Mary as foolish or humanize her at the expense of the clever, unfeeling Elizabeth. The Romantics and Victorians glorified Mary for what they perceived as emotional attachment, being led by her heart—her three marriages and her son stand her in stark contrast to the long-reigning but ultimately sterile (and therefore unnatural) Elizabeth. Modern historians, conversely, have dismissed Mary for those same reasons, holding Elizabeth up as the paragon of female power. This false dichotomy does a great disservice to both of these remarkable women, who contended with circumstances far beyond their control and men determined to destroy them. A more fruitful approach–one that is growing in popularity within queenship studies and the historical community more generally–would be to consider these two women not as mere rivals, but as queens navigating a complex series of power dynamics that included blood kinship, religious conflict, toxic masculinity, and political competition.

 

I would therefore argue that the ‘sanguine and less emotional’ approach that Kevin McKenna attributes to historian Sir Tom Devine, who dismisses Mary as ‘a figure of essentially minor historical significance’ is fundamentally misguided. However one feels about Mary Stuart, her impact on both Scottish and English—not to mention French—history is greater than it appears on first glance, and her fate serves as a cautionary tale for any subsequent woman aiming for political power. No matter what you do, who you marry or don’t marry, the children you do or don’t have, there will always be men who will do whatever it takes to bring you down.

 

P.S. I have many, many thoughts on how the CW series Reign handles these issues, which I will discuss at the Popular Culture Association conference in April 2019, and in the book I am currently writing for Palgrave Macmillan.

 

Further Reading:

John Guy, My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary, Queen of Scots (HarperCollins, 2004).

Sarah Gristwood, Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe (Basic Books, 2016).

Sharon L. Jansen, The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave, 2002).

Jayne Lewis, Mary, Queen of Scots: Romance and Nation (Routledge, 1998).