We Don’t Need Another Hero (to Die)
Andy Greenwald: Forgive me if this is an impertinent query or if I’m asking it at an inopportune time, but who is the hero of Game of Thrones? Aha, you say. A trick question! The hero of Game of Thrones is the very lack of a hero. As a series, it is defined by this absence in the same way a black hole is defined by its lack of matter or an Unsullied by his lack of … you know. No one here is all good or all bad. Instead, Game of Thrones attempts to sketch out a feudal fantasy world that more or less aligns with decades of popular culture — knights, dragons, black magic — and then saddles it with all the cruel and unusual baggage of real life. If this wasn’t already obvious, it was beaten into our heads last week when dashing Oberyn Martell had his brains dashed all over the cobblestones of the Red Keep. In Game of Thrones, David will never beat Goliath. Not because David doesn’t have righteousness on his side but because Goliath is really fucking big. If you can get past the smoke monsters and ice demons, it’s pretty clear that Game of Thrones isn’t a fantasy series. It’s a reality show.
Still, regardless of what you call it, Game of Thrones is also a TV show, meaning that at some point the audience’s rooting interest has to settle somewhere. And with Oberyn joining Ned and Robb Stark in the boneyard and Tyrion potentially next on the list, the pickings, at present, are slim. Arya is still too young, Daenerys too far away, and Bran spends half his time inside the brain of a feral wolf. That leaves us with Jon Snow, a character long burdened with the backstory of a traditional hero but none of the glory. It’s not just that Kit Harington is the last pretty-faced pouter left in a show that was once full of them. It’s that he seems to tick all the boxes of one bound for future glory: mysterious, potentially regal backstory (check); lifelong sense of not-belonging (check); hot streak of anti-authority impetuousness (check); willingness to explore even the most intimidating Wildling caves (check please!). There’s a way to look at these first four seasons of Game of Thrones not as the expansive story of a sprawling kingdom but as the elaborate backstory of one mop-headed bastard. That’s not a particularly rewarding way to look at it, mind you. I’m just saying it’s possible.
This week’s Jon-centric episode should help sort out our thinking. That’s not a spoiler, mind you. It’s fairly evident that Sunday’s installment, “The Watchers on the Wall,” will concern the potentially futile attempt of Jon and his 102 limping brothers in the Night’s Watch to defend the Wall from the attacking Wildling army. More interestingly, “Watchers” looks likely to be the series’ first single-topic episode since the ferocious “Blackwater.” This guarantees an hour packed with action and the kind of budget-busting effects that even the munificent Thrones can only afford once a season. But “Blackwater” — which was, like “Watchers,” directed by Neil Marshall — took place in the heart of King’s Landing, home to nearly all of Thrones’ most interesting characters. Going into the battle, the fates of everyone from Tyrion and Cersei to the Hound and Ser Ilyn Payne were in play. By contrast, “Watchers” is set in the distant and icy North where the only recognizable characters are Jon, Sam, and … who, exactly? There’s the asshole in charge and the asshole who got shanghaied from the City Watch. Gilly is presumably hiding somewhere nearby and there’s a guy with an ax who seems nice. But it seems pretty clear that, one way or another, this week will live or die on the charisma and capability of former know-nothing Jon Snow. It’s a lot to ask of a character who’s been mostly wandering around the margins for the better part of three years. But the question is long overdue.
Even beyond what it means for the future of the Seven Kingdoms — should the wall fall, Roose Bolton will soon have problems on his hands far greater than sorting out his heirs — Sunday’s episode will likely play a large role in determining the future of Game of Thrones itself. If the series is to continue on its present path as a heartless hope-crushing machine, then Jon’s long-awaited assumption of a leadership role will likely mean he’s not long for this world. Could Jon Snow die this week? I mean, sure. He could. The very fact that we all find it potentially plausible is a sign of the unpredictability that is the show’s signature strength. But should Jon end Sunday bleeding out into his namesake snow, it will only serve to highlight the creeping nihilism that is Game of Thrones’s greatest weakness. I don’t want or expect a happy ending. I just want, for another week or two, to imagine that one might be possible.
Superfan Crazyperson Power Rankings of the Week: Memorable Moments at the Wall!
The Frozen Five
Shit’s about to go down at the Wall. And just in case the Wall itself goes down, too, let’s remember the meaningful moments we’ve experienced at this frozen fortress to date. SNEAK PEEK: Most of these will involve genitalia in some way.
OK, yes, fine: When Ygritte tells Jon that Tormund Giantsbane has climbed the Wall “half a hundred times,” it sucks some of the awesomeness out of what follows. But it’s still pretty badass to see Lord Snow and his Wildling faux-comrades scale the icy mass, homemade picks in their hands, scrappy climbing spikes on their shoes, and murderous longing in their hearts. The before, during, and after scenes really have it all: vertigo-inducing visual effects (that snow looks real!); money quotes (“If you fall,” Tormund tells Jon, “don’t scream. You don’t want that to be the last thing she remembers”); traitorous assholes (Gareth! How dare you cut Jon and Ygritte loose?!); and drama (Jon saved Ygritte! HE SAVED HER!). “The Climb” also gave us the most insight yet into what kind of threat the Wildlings really pose to the realm, and, best of all, it did so while providing the single cheesiest moment the show has issued to date: Jon and Ygritte, bloodied and exhausted after reaching the top, getting handsy and kissy while admiring the view. Though as Ygritte’s “You staring at me ass, Jon Snow?” quip illustrates, Jon had apparently been admiring the view for a while.
It’s plenty reasonable to argue that the Jon/Ghost White Walker takedown deserves top billing, since that moment restored Jon’s good standing in the Night’s Watch; led the Lord Commander to give Jon his Valyrian steel greatsword; alerted the realm (and the viewers) to the White Walkers’ return; and was generally totally awesome in every way. Plus, as you guys know, any bit of business involving Ghosty automatically earns the Mallory Rubin Seal of Approval. But while the fire-fest in Mormont’s quarters was exceedingly important, it wasn’t as grand as Tormund’s climb. And it featured far fewer (read: zero) veiled references to cunnilingus.
In a world full of death, desperation, and despair, there’s something simple and pure and wonderful about two boys sitting around talking about a girl. Well, maybe not so pure: “And her, um … [gestures toward boob area]?” Sam asks. “You don’t want to know,” Jon replies. “What, that good?” “Better …” Despite Sam’s hilarious “What, didn’t know where to put it?” shot, Jon’s decision to tell Sam that he’s a virgin seals a bond that has proven to be part of this show’s heart and soul. There’s also a super poignant bit in which Jon explains, quite sweetly and seriously, that he didn’t sleep with Ros because he couldn’t risk getting her pregnant and creating “another bastard named Snow” … but it’s hard to focus on that when Sam’s saying things like “sneak off for a little Sally on the side.”
Maester Aemon, silent assassin! There’s a lot more here than wispy white hair and raw crow chow, as we learned when Aemon pulled Jon aside, invited him to bare his soul, and then told him, not unkindly, to grow a pair. This exchange offered incredible insight into Targaryen family history and the Night’s Watch vows, and it played a fundamental role in Jon’s life. If not for this chat (and, ultimately, some timely intervention from Jon’s posse), Jon might have abandoned the Watch to join Robb, and we should shudder to think what would have happened then.
The Wall can make even the biggest man feel small, but in this instance, it had to make the smallest man in Westeros feel like a giant. The ground surely seemed very, very far away as Tyrion stood atop that 700-foot block of ice and emptied his bladder, taking a literal and metaphorical piss on all of those ground-dwelling haters. This was a rare blissful, alpha-dog moment for our beleaguered hero — though it was also a painful reminder of Westeros’s severely lacking hygiene; not even a Purell squirt stood between Tyrion’s post-pee hands and Jon’s receiving grip.
BONUS! Borderline Weird Mallory Rubin Game of Thrones Memorabilia of the Week:
It’s Good to See the Mountain’s Still Getting Work
Best Friends 4ever!
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netw3rk: George R.R. Martin borrowed heavily from history to write the stories that would become the basis for Game of Thrones. And one of the great lessons of history is this: Human beings are just horrible animals that barely manage to not mutilate and kill each other on massive scales when they are adequately distracted from the rigors of survival and have air conditioning. Today, a government or corporate body seeking to hire someone for a sensitive position will conduct extensive background checks on applicants, combing through employment history, bank statements, and social media accounts.
Well, once upon a time, up until shockingly not that long ago, a reasonable way of insuring that your prospective palace guard or court steward had no personal agendas was, à la our friend Grey Worm, to separate that person from their pillar and stones. The thinking is that if a person has no pillar or stones, it is impossible for that person to have a family; they would have no personal ties to anyone or anything but the state. No family means no reason to acquire wealth, no offspring to whom you can bequeath possessions, and also none of that pesky sex that leads to plotting and such.
The weird and unintended consequence of this awful system of body mutilation: Because of their close proximity to the emperor or king or whoever, some eunuchs actually became quite powerful.
Which brings me to my favorite historical eunuch: Narses, an adviser, finance minister, and captain of the bodyguards to the sixth-century Byzantine emperor Justinian. (My third-favorite Byzantine emperor behind Basil the Bulgar Slayer and Heraclius.) Narses first proved himself worthy of Justinian’s trust when he was tasked with attempting to defuse what was perhaps the most historically important sports riot of all time, the Nika riots that nearly toppled Justinian’s reign. A few year later, Justinian would put Narses in command of an expeditionary force, ostensibly with the goal of reinforcing the great general Belisarius and his ongoing campaign to retake Italy. But a large part of the reason that Narses, who had no military background, was sent to Italy was because Justinian didn’t trust Belisarius, who was too young, too popular, and too good at his job, with an influential wife, and therefore a threat to Justinian himself.
History: Where being violently separated from your junk made you the most trustworthy person in the realm.
Historical info is from A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich.
Most Likely to Suffer an Ultimately Miserable Existence in a Merciless Fantasy Land
Inspired by this, but you probably knew that as a person who’s been on the Internet this week.
Trial by Cute-bat: A Kinder, Gentler Resolution to the Fight That Shook You to Your Very Core
“Oopsies, look what I did! Lil Mountain hugged Wed Vipey’s head too hard!”
“What? He should’ve finished the job when he had the chance!”
“AND NOW HE PAYS THE ULTIMATE PRICE!!!”
Game of Thrones Face
Emily Yoshida: Maybe this seems like a hot take, but Game of Thrones can get dark. Watching it while on vacation is a dubious proposition, because all the characters on the show are very much not on vacation. Unless your vacation is in Berlin, as I was this past week, where a specific ailment my friends there call “Game of Thrones face” runs rampant among the population. Once you know about Game of Thrones face you can’t unsee it. It’s basically resting bitchy face, but more existential. The most progressive, modern cities with thriving arts scenes and socialized health care are still home to people with the vestigial look of a world where accused rapists constantly win at sports and there are only two pop songs. (Oh, it’s not “The Rains of Castamere”? Must be “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” again. Kill me now.) In Berlin, it usually just means the person has spent the last 36 hours on a ketamine bender, but Game of Thrones can affect anyone, even you on vacation the morning after one too many lagers. Always be checking for Thrones face, whether it’s the hollowly masochistic Ironborn face, “I’m old and live in an alpine tower of psychosis” Eyrie council face, or, worst of all, the Red Viper Face of Defeat. It might get stuck that way, you know. (×︿×)
The Nihilist Hangover
John Lopez: I leave to others the unenviable task of analyzing Lord Oberyn’s skull getting popped like a potato in a microwave. But, as with any brutally quick trauma, my mind instantly sought refuge in future fears. For me, almost as stomach-churning as the sight of head-bits splattered about like so many discarded Jell-O shots was the rapidity and relish with which Tywin passed the death sentence on his own son.
Quickly dispelled were my whimsical notions that paternal affection might stay his hand: that Tywin might recognize how his own gifts of strategy had been most thoroughly reborn in Tyrion’s tiny frame. But after the efficient stage exits of Ned, Robb, and Cat Stark, Tyrion’s soliloquy about his cousin’s senseless beetle slaughter might as well have been accompanied by the sound of bells tolling. Show even the faintest flicker of humanity and Westeros will gut you like a suckling pig. Somehow I fooled myself into thinking that Tyrion’s gleeful caddishness might exempt him from the Game of Thrones death lottery. But the instant you care about a character, however involuntary, G.R.R. Martin starts engraving the tombstone.
Obviously, book readers know where this is going, but I don’t. And I now am faced with a truly existential quandary: If Tyrion really does go the way of the Starks, can I still keep watching? For all the other key deaths, I could buy into the Darwinian logic: Ned Stark was tragically noble; Rob, tragically foolish; Cat, just tragic. But Tyrion? He’s the fun one! The plucky, amoral survivor! The whoremongering playboy hiding a heart of, if not gold, at least tarnished silver! Admit it, if you could get a beer with any one character on Game of Thrones, it would probably be Tyrion. And that’s the criterion by which we usually elect presidents.
But if Tyrion gets whacked, how can I keep watching without fearing I’ve fallen into a self-destructive relationship with my TV? When did my Sundays become a sadomasochistic marathon? Seriously, if/when Tyrion dies, I’m going to need some counseling. I might need to reevaluate how healthy my continued viewing is and maybe start hanging out with New Girl more. I mean, can’t they throw me a bone or two: a flashback shot of Arya playing Jenga with John Snow? Ser Jorah and Dany braiding each other’s hair? Or just five more seconds with Ser Pounce? But, oh god, now that I mention Ser Pounce, my brain’s already playing out the inevitable scene in which Cersei serves up a Ser Pounce soufflé to Tommen when he starts spending too much quality time with Margaery. See?! The next daymare has already begun! I can’t keep living like this. I have to draw the line somewhere. If Tyrion dies, that’s it — I’m taking my stand for principles, for happiness. For Ser Pounce.
Oh, who am I kidding? I’ll keep coming back.