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.

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