Game of Thrones – “Winter is Coming”
What, exactly, is there to be excited about here?
Was it the violence? Was it the naked women with Peter Dinklage? Was it the naked woman with the king of the heavily racialized Others (who are to be used by a lily-white man to regain his throne in a political power play)? Was it the costumes and make-up? Was it the frost zombies? Was it the direwolf pups?
Okay. The direwolf pups are kind of adorable.
But beyond them, and I found myself asking, “Why should I watch episode 2 of this airless, lifeless story about, at its core, putting aside the fantasy genre, rich white men?”
I avoided pretty much all early press about the series as I could, intending to go in completely clueless to this series. Part of my desire to do this was experience an adaption of franchise fresh, with little knowledge of a story, and another part was that I simply didn’t have time to read the first book (which, incidentally, I picked up at a Borders before, read the back of, and put back on the shelf).
I remain fairly clueless even after watching an episode.
Winter is coming, I’m repeatedly told, as if this were a bad thing. I’m assuming it has something to do with the White Walkers (or, as I will continue to call them, the Frost Zombies) that are stirring behind The Wall to the North, but only the characters are privy to such information. The rest of the episode swirls around the intrigue of maintaining the Iron Throne, which I assume is say upon by the king of the Seven Kingdoms, including Ned Stark’s decisions to become the hand of the king (played by the doofus dad from Still Standing? Really?)
Thrust into the world, with little information to ground myself, I’m forced to draw connections to characters whose relationships remain somewhat opaque, or whose appearances tend to blend together. For instance, Stark’s three older sons. I could not pick the bastard son out of a line up, the three all look the same to me (Oops. There are only two sons. Ah well. Point made.). Worst still, I have no character to anchor myself to, no one who isn’t somehow in the know of what is going on.
I do not need things spelled out for me, I enjoy a challenge, but I do expect a show (or book or film), not to keeps its intentions painfully unclear to me. I ended up feeling much like an outsider as I watched, which leads me to think that, based purely on this episode, only fans could relish seeing the characters and world they know intimately brought to life on screen while the rest of us would appreciate a cheat sheet.
But beside these narrative issues, I struggle with race and gender in the episode as well. The Dothraki in the east are woefully problematic. Dark-skinned savage types in which if three people aren’t killed at a wedding, it’s considered a dull one? What? No. And to introduce them to the audience in a way that suggests their hyper-sexualized, hyper-violent nature only feeds into the discourse of a uncivilized, exotic Other.
And then consider how they’re further presented: as tools by a lily-white man to regain his throne (I’m assuming that the current king stole it from his father…?). A barbaric, battle-hardened horde to overrun the civilized society that cast him out.
And how does he do this? By bartering off his equally lily-white sister, Daenerys, to the king of the Dothraki. Given no agency, no perspective, no voice, it seems, Daenerys comes off as little more than a prop in which the Dothraki appear all the more savage and uncivilized (even before she is known she is to be given to the Dothraki, she steps toward them, trance like). She barely registers a personality.
Much of the women in the episode seem trapped in the patriarchy that surrounds them. They’re either trapped queens or princesses, or they’re whores. This has been discussed on a number of other sites, but I’ll add my two cents that it’s pretty reprehensible from a representation stand point, and boring to watch. Only Arya, Stark’s youngest daughter, seems like a clever one, and good with a bow and arrow already at 9 or 10 years of age. There are hopes for her, I suspect, but no way to be sure.
And Arya leads me to another issue that bugged me as I watched the episode. My Twitter feed as been all a buzzed about the representations of race and gender in the episode, and rightfully so. But no discussion of class? Really? The show executes a commoner, a man who is credited as being a loon for saying the Frost Zombies are about. He mentions a
wife and child family, but no one seems to care, with Stark making no motions for the family to be informed of the man’s execution in the middle of nowhere.
And we see these commoners as Arya sneaks out to get an earlier peek at the king before the rest of her family, but they’re given no face. They are not kneeling as the carriage passes, but nor are they booing or cheering. What of the commoners in the 7 Kingdoms? Have they resigned themselves to this form of government, to dealing with the constant power plays? Do the rulers care about the commoners? Do the commoners even know that winter is coming? Do they care?
Back to the executed commoner. Here’s a character who seems flabbergasted by the events around him in the cold open (heh, cold, winter. I’m funny), he was provided a point of view for an audience that doesn’t know what’s going on. And perhaps there’s a parallel to be drawn here between the types of viewers coming to the series.
Defenses of the episode have come largely from folks who have read the book, who are privy to knowledge of narrative develops before they happen in the television series. They defend the narrative from the accusations of racism and sexism (no one’s mentioned class, so I’ll be eager to see if suddenly there’s commoner uprising), saying that things get better, that the Dothraki develop later on, beyond their savage first impression, and that the role of women in the story steadily improves. They know winter is coming, and what it means. They are the royalty, the upper class.
Those of us just coming to the series? We’re the commoners, shouting about the Racism and Sexism Zombies that have appeared. But we’re told we’re need to be patient, that those creepy zombies ease up. Are you sure, those with more knowledge? Does it get better? Or are we commoners going to be left in the cold, without our heads?
Addendum: I do intend to stick with the show, for at least the first season, and give it the time to grow. There can be interesting things to come from this show, and I’m eager to have my negative impressions altered. I would like to like the show (and as I say in the comments, I did really love those opening credits (except for the title card itself, which is pretty horrible looking, I think)). So reviews will continue to happen, and you can all relish it if I eventually come around on the show.
Also, there’s a glut of reviews and conversations going on about this series, but I want to highlight Rowan Kaiser’s brief piece on the show ‘s place in television (I take full credit for spurring him on to write it!). I really like this break down (and it’s concise, which I like as well). I’ll be replying to Rowan at his site, so do drop by and engage his ideas!
- April 20, 2011