Grin and Bare It – A Note on Game of Thrones
As an immigrant to this country, I take it as a given that everyone in the United States smiles way too often. Even in a stereotypically unfriendly city such as New York, there is a lot of grinning. Whatever smiles mean, in the U.S. context they’re saying: “I’m nice. You’re nice too, right?” Sometimes they say: “Please buy something/thank you for buying something.” But some smiles are neither seeking approval nor responding to consumer culture. If only smiles could always be that banal.
It’s not in my nature to meditate on smiling. Rage is a great deal sexier. But I found myself confronting what smiles mean while watching the last few episodes of season 6 of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Specifically, it was Cersei Lannister, played by Lena Headey, who put me on this path. There she is, during the penultimate episode of the season, dressed in a dark armor-dress hybrid (think sidesaddle but for armor) and golden circlet crowning her short-cropped hair, looking out of the royal palace’s window over the faux yet meticulously medieval city of King’s Landing. As this happens, the city’s great temple, a massive domed structure in which all of her enemies have gathered to ostensibly witness her be tried for the crime of incest (among many, many, many others) explodes in green flame. The corners of her mouth rise to form a self-satisfied, close-lipped smile. Think: the cat who ate the canary. The smile is delicious in every way, the culminating sign of a plan set in motion long ago and that plan’s fruition. This triumphant yet composed smile is only the shadow of the pleasure she must feel—as she commits mass murder. To be sure, she does not see this act as murder but war; Cersei sees it as annihilating her enemies and finally attaining the power she has sought for so long. In short, she is owed her revenge. And yet, I can’t help thinking about all those make-believe bodies and how the explosion of the domed temple suggests what might be a scene of terrorism in a far-away country in our very own world. In response to her pleasure, I can only feel horror.
More to my liking was a different scene far away from King’s Landing. You see, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the rightful heir of the throne at King’s Landing, has been missing from the city she rules, Mereen. In her absence, the city is attacked by the previous rulers, the masters. With a nod to our own world, this fight is not only about Daenerys’ fate but also about the battle between slavers (the masters) and freed slaves (who follow Daenerys). Unbeknownst to the masters, Daenerys returns to Mereen in full command of her three dragons (think jet fighters with flamethrowers and missiles). She destroys—by burning—many of the ships and crews attacking her city. Is this not mass murder? Yes, but while she sits abreast the greatest dragon, Drogon, as he swoops through the sky over the bay upon which Mereen is built, breathing fire and destroying man and machine, I know that this is not the destruction of troops but rather of a system. I feel exultant as the show’s plot and imagery reinforces my own moral position, though it is only “moral” when you take into account our history, not the world of Game of Thrones, which is decidedly amoral. As culture confirms my worldview and I experience the scene as justice, I feel joy. Daenerys does not smile.
Even though Daenerys seems to think that her task is a grim one, the staging of her victory leaves me unperturbed. However, another scene featuring Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) leaves me a little uneasy. Sansa, thought to be the last remaining true heir of House Stark, has been enduring a kind of unsentimental education, or reeducation through pain, throughout the series. The breaking point comes during the last season: her title gives her rights to rule the North, and that has made her vulnerable to a northern family, the Boltons, whose heir, Ramsay, is a sadist. Ramsay forcibly marries Sansa and abuses and rapes her continuously during their short “marriage.” When Ramsay is defeated by Sansa’s brother, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Ramsay’s fate is left in Sansa’s hands. Look: he is seated in a cell located in a space that is not quite dungeon and not quite a stable. Or a kennel. He is bound to a chair or stool in the center of the cell. Light falls upon him, and he stirs as he senses Sansa’s quiet approach out of the gloom. Covered in a dark, gray cloak, the only color we register is the actress’ red hair, which frames her pale skin. We know that Ramsay has trained his hounds to rip, shred, and consume human flesh. Ramsay laughs and tells Sansa that his hounds will never harm him. She replies by reminding him that he hasn’t fed them in days. We are saved the spectacle of the dogs tearing him apart. The director is kind enough to look away…or is he? Instead, the camera lingers on Sansa’s face and slowly closes in until it frames her in a tight close up. She is implacable, stoic. Here I am reminded of Ned Stark, who was so honorable that he carried out death sentences himself, as I watch his daughter bear witness to the justice she has meted out. As Ramsay dies, Sansa expressionless turns away from the cell and walks away. Ah, this is Ned Stark’s daughter indeed, brimming with honor and dignity even as she must be cruel. As she leaves, the vague shape of the cell behind her, she walks slowly out of this beastly space. And as the screen slowly fades to black, she smiles. I do not. Whereas a moment ago, I saw the repayment of a social “debt,” justice, now I am not so sure. Am I going to quibble with a rape survivor avenging the sin committed against her? Not a chance. And yet, in response to that smile, I feel dread—for Sansa and for myself.
By the last episode of the season, I am emotionally in disarray. The kids these days call it “shook.” So much has happened this season, and while no one in the series is perfect, no one can or should be admired, I am heartened that during the last episode, we see a rise of gyno power in the world of Game of Thrones. All but one of the male leaders have been swept away, and it is women who plot, inspire, cajole, rule, command. Game of Thrones, it seems, has decided to take seriously the challenge of imagining what if women ruled the world, especially a world that is deeply patriarchal. I am delighted. I smile. So I am surprised that during this last episode we are visiting with old, decrepit Walder Frey (David Bradley, Hogwarts’ own Argus Filch) famous for being disloyal, famous for putting himself ahead of oaths of fealty through which his family is bound to other noble families, famous for marrying teenage girls and siring a great many children. It was Walder Frey who planned and hosted the Red Wedding, in which Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley), mother to Sansa, and her son Robb Stark (Richard Madden), the King in the North, died brutally. Indeed, barbarically: for Walder Frey committed an unforgivable sin by murdering his own guests. So there is Walder Frey, sitting at the high table of his own deserted hall. It is late at night and the hall is dark, a fire burning dimly in one of the recesses, and he is alone in the hall save for one young serving girl. But he aims to revel in his power, celebrating by having a meat pie brought to him by the serving girl. Oh, but we know where this is going: deserted hall, very old and powerful man, a young girl there to cater to his needs. At best, some coercion is on its way. He notes that she is new, an unfamiliar face, and she playfully tells him that she has arrived with one of his noble guests and is helping his castle’s staff (oh, why is she playing with him? Get out of there). A few more exchanges reveals that she doesn’t believe herself to be in any danger, and some of her answers are strangely cryptic. Then Walder Frey wonders, as he begins eating the meat pie, where everyone else is. The meat pie itself is thickly reddish and the consistency odd (it’s not just you, Walder, that looks kind of gross). Responding to his question about where his sons are, where his family is, the serving girl says that they’re in the hall with them. Walder Frey asks but where in the castle have they gone to…and she restates that they’re right here. If you’ve read or seen Titus Andronicus, you know what’s coming and the nausea cries out from deep within your belly. Yes, reader, she has fed him his family. But why? She reveals herself to be Arya Stark (Maisie Williams). Arya, Sansa’s younger sister, presumed killed or lost in Westeros but who instead has been learning hard lessons about the world and in the process learning how to fight, how to hide, how to become someone else, and how to exact revenge upon those who killed her father, her mother, and her brothers. And Walder Frey orchestrated the murder of her mother and one of her brothers. Arya, who throughout her travels has recited over and over the names of those who deserve to pay for the deaths of her kin, grabs the very old Walder Frey from behind his chair and while holding him with one arm stabs him with her free hand. And she is absolutely beaming, her smile radiant. And so am I. The nausea has morphed, and as the gorge comes up at the thought of cannibalistic infanticide, it transmutes into the sheer pleasure of revenge and expresses itself as a gleeful smile.
The show has trapped me, for in my reaction to Arya’s disturbing act of revenge and to Sansa’s tarnished justice I realize that I am Cersei Lannister, a homicidal monster—at least in my unrestrained emotional life animated by fiction. The relative power and positionality of the different characters is important: a person can bring about someone else’s death, but it is the specific relationship between the two persons, intersected by power, history, law, culture, family, desperation, that renders that death a murder or self-defense. In other words, aren’t all these character committing murder, often mass murder? And do they not all have good reasons for such acts? The power to insulate oneself from harm. The casting down of an unjust system and daring to imagine a different kind of political reality. The comeuppance richly deserved by the rapist. The need to annihilate those responsible for destroying the people who brought you into this world. These good reasons, however, cannot hide that the pleasure we associate with smiles can derive from goodness but also from violence—and this goodness and violence can be real or imagined. And yet we do not know in real life, in the moment in which we see the smile and in the moment in which ourselves smile, what is the true source of that pleasure, of that smile. “I’m nice. You are too, right?” “Please buy something/thank you for buying something.” Shift the mood just a bit, and these become: “It doesn’t matter who’s nice or how you feel, as long as I get what I want.” “As long as you buy something, I don’t care how much you have to go into debt or whether you and your family have to go hungry.” I am not arguing that there is no goodness in the world. Nor am I advocating for a completely cynical, paranoid view of the world. I am saying that what we do matters, the story behind our smiles and pleasure matters, especially when the ripple effect of how we feel and how we plan, stage, and experience pleasure produce, or contribute to, the destruction of others.
Game of Thrones has rightly been criticized for its violent content, and yet it has also rightly been lauded for depicting how mercurial power truly is. But, as a product of our culture and by addressing our culture, this show also stages how we feel—how we affectively respond to crime, punishment, and all manner of transgressions. The analysis is: this fantasy world is but a mere reflection of our own true world, of our wants, feelings, desires, and pleasures. The destruction of slavery in Mereen brings me pleasure, no matter how many die for it, just as the destruction of her enemies brings Cersei pleasure. The valence is different, but the pleasure is real. And so the show has revealed me to myself: I am Cersei Lannister. But, reader, hold on to me, let us comfort each other because, reader, I suspect that you too may also be Cersei Lannister.