Every week, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, we'll be hearing from culture editor Todd VanDerWerff, executive editor Matthew Yglesias, and foreign policy writer Zack Beauchamp. Come back throughout the week for entries.
Matthew Yglesias: The Wall … well … I really love this thread in the books, and somehow the rich politics of it all seem to have been washed out in the screen adaptation. It doesn't help that the bluish hue and the cloaks make everyone look the same. Nor that setting up Gilly to be raped, just so the story could serve as a character-development milestone for Sam, is an egregious cliché.
It's particularly troubling that the show can't make this interesting because in basic story terms the stakes could not be higher. Winter is coming, which means an army of ice zombies is poised to attack the Wall and wipe out all of humanity. The Night's Watch is understaffed, and due to the continuing fallout of the War of the Five Kings no help will be coming from the south. Lord Commander Jon Snow's visionary solution is to pivot the Watch away from its traditional mission of fighting wildlings in order to recruit wildling fighters to help repel the White Walkers. It's an idea that sickens many longtime men of the Night's Watch, yet it just might be the last best hope of mankind!
The show has somehow turned this into a muddle.
One problem, I think, is that the butterfly effect has sent show-Melisandre on a campaign with Stannis, rather than having her at the Wall with Jon. But the exact same change has improved the Stannis-marches-to-Winterfell plot. The man who would be king is soon to be faced with a rather bleak choice — save his daughter's life or save his military campaign.
For now, of course, he chooses Shireen of raison d'état, and we celebrate him for it. But miles away the Queen Regent (for now) Cersei is telling her son that she would "burn cities for him," a rather chilling expression of motherly love. The conflict between our intuitions that say Cersei is wrong to hypothetically sacrifice tens of thousands for the sake of her son while also saying that Stannis is right to refuse to sacrifice his daughter to liberate the North from the Boltons is the stuff of a thousand freshman philosophy seminars.
I have to say, Todd, I can't really take the same degree of pleasure in Cersei's downfall that you do. For starters, I think Cersei (particularly the show's version, whom the creators wisely made less nutty than the book) is oversold as a villain by a fandom that is excessively hung up on the Starks, whose lack of mindfulness about the public interest is fundamentally what's brought humanity to the brink of possible destruction. But that's a matter for another day.
Just hewing to the episode before us, the problem with Cersei's downfall is the Sparrow. If I am a citizen of the Seven Kingdoms, I am not excited about his rise to power. He has the look of a Khomeini or perhaps even a Pol Pot about him — someone ready to overthrow a corrupt order, while perhaps replacing it with something even worse.
His rhetoric in favor of the common man and against the elite is appealing. But he has no agenda for constitutional reform. Populism is a bludgeon with which to beat the Great Houses in order to arrogate more power to the Faith, not to redistribute it to the people. And he has no civic-minded policy agenda. He's not doing anything to fight the White Walkers or to prepare for winter — he's policing the sexual mores of the King's Landing elite.
One of the few positive aspects of Westeros's political order is that, as far as we can tell, it practices an admirable degree of religious tolerance. What happens to that now that the Sparrows are running the show? What becomes of those who follow the Old Gods or the Lord of Light? I feel like this is heading to a dark place.
Speaking of darkness, Zack, do you think the show did a better job of mixing in some levity this time? The Jorah and Tyrion Show is pretty funny, especially considering that the subject matter is being kidnapped into slavery and forced into gladiatorial combat.
Read the recap. Come back throughout the week for more entries.