The obscene and the selfless
Stephen M Hornby, playwright and researcher into writing from archives, gives us his thoughts on Game of Thrones, or Who Wants to Sit on This? as the show is known among his friends
For years I was one of those who scorned Game of Thrones. I blame the person who described it to me shortly after its launch as “The Hobbit with boobs”. Neither was a selling point for me. But then, as the first season progressed and eventually came to its jaw-dropping conclusion, all I heard from exasperated friends was: “WATCH IT!”
Martin acknowledges his debt to British history, from Hadrian to the War of the Roses
Laid out on the sofa one cold November afternoon, off sick from work with man flu, I was ready for a box set to soothe me. The tagline for the first season of the show, “winter is coming”, appealed to my state of mild autumnal depression. I started to watch. From my first glimpse of a murdering ice zombie (a White Walker) in the first moments of the first episode, I was totally hooked.
Now, seven seasons later, winter has come, dragons have hatched, battle after battle has been grimly and gloriously fought, twist after twist has deliciously played out and whole dynasties have risen high and tragically fallen. The final six episodes of this tempestuous saga of power, sex and violence are starting and it has been a momentous journey.
There have been boobs, as promised, but GoT has closed the gender nudity gap with flesh of all forms on generous display, and a whole host of sex and sexualities that have earned it fans from every imaginable demographic. And, perhaps uniquely, two incestuous relationships have been at the heart of the story all along.
At the start of the Game, the throne is held by Robert Baratheon, a rough, selfish man with a hint of Henry VIII about him. He is married to Cersei Lannister, a typically strategic dynastic marriage, uniting two powerful families.
But Cersei not only has sex with her twin brother, Jaime Lannister, on a regular basis, he is secretly the father of her three children. These are the children who Robert thinks are his, the children that will inherit the throne. And then, when the secret is about to come out, King Robert dies and the throne passes to the first of those bastards. Bastards are a big thing in GoT. Seven season later and Cersei has survived the grisly deaths of all her children to rule as Queen Cersei in her own name. The challenger to the throne is Daenerys Targaryen. Her father was an insanely cruel ruler – think Roman Emperor Caligula – and was deposed by Robert Baratheon. Jaime Lannister murdered the mad king.
Dany is out to be Queen, but along the way has lost most her allies to Cersei’s better strategy and ruthless cunning. She’s also lost one of her three dragons to the White Walkers, whose army of the dead is now marching south, intent on killing the whole scheming lot of them.
And then there’s the King of the North, Jon Snow, who Dany wants as an ally but who refuses to “bend the knee” – not a euphemism. Jon finally seals the deal with Dany by sleeping with her while, at the same moment, his brother has a vision about the past, and sees who Jon’s parents really are. This reveals that Dany is actually Jon’s aunt. They didn’t know it at the time, unlike Jaime and Cersei, but they have just committed incest too. Incest is definitely the new normal on GoT.
And now Cersei is pregnant, with her brother’s child. Again. And Dany might be, with the child of her own nephew. And the wall that has protected everyone from the White Walkers for millennia has just been destroyed by the ice zombie dragon that Dany lost.
And that isn’t really even a quarter of what’s actually gone on. Where does the writer get all these ideas from? As a playwright who works with archives to dramatise stories, I’m fascinated to sniff out the historical sources that the writer George RR Martin has used for inspiration for the original books that the show is based on.
Martin acknowledges his debt to British history, from the Roman Emperor Hadrian building a wall to keep out the barbarians in the north to the 15th century War of the Roses, a bloodbath of brutal rivalry between two aristocratic houses that fought for the English throne.
Fans also make cases for inspiration from Oliver Cromwell, the Spartans, Robin Hood, Nostradamus and the Mongol empire, more or less convincingly. It’s safe to say that Martin is avidly interested in the past and some of it has rubbed off.
GoT isn’t really history but, at the same time, it sort of is. A fantasy, alternative medieval history of Europe, where some of the magical elements of the realm of King Arthur still live on.
Among the history that influences Martin, he identifies plenty of same sex desire. He’s on the side of the scholars who see big-deal monarchs Edward II and Richard the Lionheart as men who had sexual and emotional relationships with other men. One of Robert Baratheon’s brothers is in a relationship with a knight, and characters from other houses are very fluid about their sex lives and preferences. This limited but significant inclusivity might be another reason for the show’s success. At a fan convention, Martin was challenged about his intention in putting LGBT characters into GoT. With more than a dash of wry detachment he said: “Well, I noticed that there were gay people in the world.”
Despite this being a land of jousting knights and beautiful princesses, there are characters who defy these gender expectations, like the brilliant knight Brienne of Tarth, and characters who do not grow into fully expressed adult sex differences, like Lord Varys. Both are survivors whose wisdom and goodness contrasts to the brutal power battles that rage around them. In GoT, the obscene and the selfless often sit side by side, illuminating each other.
GoT is also a cruel death-fest. Part of what makes it so compelling dramatically is that any character, however central to the story, however kind and genuine, however well loved, can be killed. We’ve seen and felt it time and again.
As the saga closes, everything is possible. Goodness may be punished. The humble may go unrewarded and your personal favourites may die or, worse, be zombified into the army of the dead. That what makes every episode so compelling.
My betting is that these final episodes will be epic, gripping and devastating. One thing we do know is that Martin is no fan of a happy ending. Will the throne go to Cersei or Dany or Jon? Or Cersei’s long-suffering other brother Tyrion? Or could the White Walkers be the final winners in the Game of Thrones, the only characters who aren’t playing the game?
Stephen M Hornby is the national playwright in residence to LGBT History Month. His current play The Adhesion of Love completes a tour in the North West at the Bolton Socialist Club on 31 May. Tickets can be purchased on Eventbrite. Game of Thrones is on Sky Atlantic
New to the Game
James Hurp watches his first ever Game of Thrones episode
I have an admission – I have never watched an episode of Game of Thrones, until now. My excuses are twofold. Firstly, I have a teeth-gnashing dislike of pretentious dealings with patently silly material. Look at Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy! It’s just a gravelly-voiced vigilante billionaire. In a tooled-up leotard! With a cape! Tim Burton did a much better job. Secondly, having worked in a bookshop for many years in my youth, I read a lot of fantasy novels before getting bored of the medieval/rural clichés and hilariously unpronounceable names.
With that said, and with the final season of this awards-laden TV show airing worldwide, I thought it pertinent to kick my stubborn refusals aside and see what all the water-cooler blather has been about.
Episode one of this lavish, visually stunning show certainly sets out a dense and duplicitous web as we meet the two warring dynasties vying for sovereignty over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. We are flung straight in amongst the relatively kindly and earthy (because they rescue abandoned wolf pups and have shaggy manes) Starks, versus the craven and power hungry, presumably also tyrannical (because they’re posher, with neater hairdos) Lannisters.
There are various associates sneering malevolently, plotting arranged marriages, eavesdropping, murdering and generally mistreating (mostly) women, it seems. Now fantasy fiction is often a genre that I think treats and depicts female characters equally if not better than many males (a grand generalisation, I grant you) but on this early evidence GoT seems stuck in a bit of a hetero male-pleasing hard place. I am told this irons out somewhat as things progress, but initially it seems regressive and disappointing.
My overriding issue though was I didn’t find much originality or anyone to root for in this flood of unpronounceable names (people as well as places) and overly familiar, baroque plots. Cast and crew alike seemed to be pilfering from John Boorman’s Excalibur and Roman Polanski’s Macbeth, while cheekily stealing from Sir Gawain And The Green Knight and Willow too (not a dig at Peter Dinklage’s stature FYI)!
I understand this is a show with grand cinematic ambitions, and has been lauded as unique and “never before seen” television, but it felt to me like the next logical step after event serials in late 2000s such as Spartacus, Rome and Vikings, albeit with better writing and higher budgets. The filming style is undeniably grand, with cameras panning slowly and deliberately over landscapes instead of racing and cutting like an ADHD-edited flicker book. This I like. The acting I am yet to be convinced by.
To be honest, if I were watching this as a weekly serial I don’t think I’d stick it out but, with seven seasons available to watch in their entirety, and the last one imminent, I do at least feel I’d be interested to see where it goes, for now.
Author Samantha Shannon says Game of Thrones helps end the idea that fantasy is a male domain
Like just about everyone else on the planet, I’m counting down the hours until the final season of Game of Thrones. Watching this show has been a journey like no other, and I’m going to be bereft without my yearly dose of it – not just because of the dragons, but because it’s been incredible to have such a huge cast of complex and layered women on my screen.
As someone who always has one eye on the representation of women in media, Game of Thrones has often impressed me. Rarely has the small screen offered us such a plethora of well-written and well-acted female characters in one show. As of now, the main contenders for the Iron Throne are Cersei and Daenerys. In Game of Thrones, women can be power-hungry and ambitious. They can reach for, and hold, positions of authority. They rise in spite of facing sexism at every turn.
Game of Thrones has also presented us with a range of different kinds of female strength. Sansa Stark’s quiet endurance has helped her outlive many seasoned players. Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth resist the gender roles society has pressed on them. I could go on, and could write an essay about each one. In writing A Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin resisted the long tradition of hyper-masculine epics. When asked in 2012 about the way he chose to write about women, he succinctly replied: “You know, I’ve always considered women to be people.”
Whether or not Game of Thrones is feminist is a question I’m still trying to answer. Certainly it passes the Bechdel test, but questionable choices have been made when it comes to how – and how often – the show portrays violence against women. It should also be noted that while Game of Thrones has many women, few of them are queer, disabled or people of colour.
Overall, however, Game of Thrones has made a truly seismic contribution to ending the idea that fantasy is as a male domain, and it will be a great loss for the representation of women in popular culture when it’s over. It’s comforting to know that HBO’s next big adaptation, with Martin serving as executive producer, will be Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor – an epic fantasy about and by a woman.
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon is published by Bloomsbury
The family way
Daniel Urquijo reminds us where the houses are now
At last, the three remaining Starks are reunited once again. After being thrown to the clutches of diverse psychos through the course of the first few seasons, Sansa finally managed to escape and convince Jon Snow to capture Winterfell, and now she is the queen bee up north while Jon is away – except she is not really that popular.
Jon went off to meet Daenerys for an alliance proposal, so Sansa put to use all her diplomatic skills to appease the northern lords who supported them in the conquest of the city.
Bran moved back to Winterfell after becoming the Three-Eyed Raven and has been exposing everyone ever since thanks to his special powers.
Arya nearly got killed while training to become a Faceless Men assassin – but it all was worth the hassle since she then went on to take revenge on the House of Frey, and then got serenaded by an undercover Ed Sheeran.
She and Sansa had some tense moments orchestrated behind the scenes by Littlefinger, but, thanks to Bran’s visions, they found out that Littlefinger was to blame for a long list of conspiracies, plots and betrayals in order to gain power at the expense of the Starks, so he got executed.
The currently reigning house has been dealing with some internal conflicts. Tyrion was appointed the Hand of the Queen to Daenerys (Cersei’s biggest enemy), Cersei currently sits on the Iron Throne, and Jaime has recently turned his back on his beloved sister.
Tyrion quickly devised a series of cautious strategies for Daenerys to conquer Westeros – placing him at odds with her preference towards more visceral warfare. He has become the Switzerland of the series; he organised a negotiation between Jon Snow and Daenerys, met with Jaime to persuade him to fight the White Walkers, and mediated to get Cersei to co-operate with the rest in a unified front in the North.
Cersei on the other hand began to plot her plan early on, as she knew that she was set to lose to Daenerys. She allied with Euron Greyjoy, struck a major deal with Westeros’s own Wall Street to finance an enormous private military army, and commissioned a weapon against the dragons.
At Dragonpoint, she agreed to co-operate with Jon and Daenerys once Tyrion persuaded her to do so – only for the viewer to find out later that it was an empty promise, which infuriated Jaime profusely, and that she was in fact plotting with Euron to recruit mercenaries.
Jaime was more pessimistic about Cersei’s chances against Daenerys. He tried to persuade Cersei to make a truce with Daenerys after the surprise attack on Cersei’s army following the sack of Highgarden, and decided to join Jon and Daenerys in the North to fight the White Walkers as promised.
In an unexpected turn of events, Bran discovered that Jon was in fact Rhaeger’s son, making him a Targaryen and the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. Meanwhile, Daenerys went from being a prisoner of the Dhothraki to becoming their leader, putting together a massive army, and began her invasion of Westeros.
Her first few battles were only mildly successful, which she blamed on Tyrion’s conservative strategies. As for Jon, he
was resurrected by Melisandre, left the Night’s Watch, captured Winterfell and began the preparations in the North to fight the Night King.
Once Daenerys lost some of her allies, she decided to meet with Jon Snow so he would bend the knee and join her. He refused initially, but they managed to reach an agreement in private: Jon would have the dragonglass needed to kill White Walkers and her support against the Night King in exchange for his allegiance.
In an attempt to convince Cersei of the need for a truce to fight their common enemy, Jon went on an expedition to capture a wight. The wights attacked, so Daenerys flew north to save the expedition, losing one of her dragons to the Night King. After the rescue, Jon bent the knee in private as a sign of gratitude.
Finally, and unaware of their kinship, he and Daenerys gave in to their feelings on their way to Winterfell, after the Dragonpit truce was drawn and Cersei totally agreed to support them against the White Walkers.
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