The Secret of Craster’s Keep

Salman Rushdie famously called Game of Thrones “addictive garbage” and “well-produced trash.” If it is those things, maybe part of the reason is because it reflects 21st-century society’s own dubious values back at it in an uncomfortable manner. We like to think we’re more civilized than the medieval brutes who populate Westeros, but civilization has a way of putting a polite veneer on things, covering them up so that they’re not out in the open where they can remind us how little we’ve really advanced on certain fronts.

Cut to the real world, circa late 2017. Not long after Game of Thrones had completed its pseudo-feminist, Season 6-7 victory lap, the Weinstein effect began to expose a viper’s nest of high-profile abusers in Hollywood and across numerous industries. While we’ve yet to hear a #MeToo story involving a bath-robed studio bigwig with a crossbow, it’s not hard to equate men in real-life positions of power with characters like Joffrey, Ramsey Bolton, or Walder Frey.

One phrase we’ve heard a lot as stories of abuse have come to light in the media the past few years is “an open secret.” The idea of a known wrong that people overlook while they have dealings with the perpetrator brings to mind Craster, the wildling who maintained his own fiefdom of daughter-wives at Craster’s Keep, where he sacrificed his incestuous baby sons to White Walkers.

Craster was an ally of the Night’s Watch, whose Lord Commander, Jeor Mormont (Jorah’s dad), chose to look the other way when confronted with what was happening at Craster’s Keep. His reasons were practical—because the Night’s Watch needed Craster for shelter and intel north of the Wall.

In the end, however, by turning a blind eye, Lord Commander Mormont, the guy in charge, not only helped uphold a small system of evil; he strengthened the big one, allowing Craster to supply the White Walkers with more human fodder for their army, which would, in turn, attack the Wall and overcome it, breaking through to Winterfell and threatening all the living of Westeros.

That’s the real metaphorical issue with Game of Thrones. It’s a question worth considering: was this show furthering a useless narrative? Was it part of the problem? Did it harm more than it helped? Or are its failings our failings?

In the 2010s, this goes to a broader question about the role of fandom and how it’s grown more deeply entwined in the entertainment it consumes. Art imitates life, but life also imitates art and the stories we tell ourselves become our truths. They’re like self-fulfilling prophecies in that way.

In lifting up miserable flaws on the part of itself and its characters — in showing us the limits of human potential with regressive arcs — did Game of Thrones only serve to defeat itself and reinforce stereotypes about the place of women and men in the world? For some viewers, it’s understandable that the final outcome of Dany’s storyline might be the last insult, the point where the show’s sadistic, misogynistic streak tipped too far into propagating brutality and sexism, rather than just offering up an artistic reflection of it as it already exists in human history.

From the perspective of tragedy as a teaching tool, the downfall of Daenerys was Ned Stark all over again: an abject lesson illustrating the danger of getting attached to an aspirational hero in a world where there was no such thing. If Ned was the short con that spanned a single season, Daenerys was the long con that spanned the whole series. But whereas his fate was a deal-maker — the well-earned surprise that brought viewers like me on board — the handling of her fate looks to have been a last-minute deal-breaker to a large swath of the show’s audience.

Game of Thrones Season 7 Details

Daenerys Targaryen, Old Testament Goddess of Justice

Even in Seasons 6 and 7, when Game of Thrones began to empower its major female characters more — giving Cersei and Sansa their revenge and continuing the rise of Daenerys — its pivot toward them seemed halfway touched with guilt, as if it was suddenly self-aware, conscious of the optics, ready to respond with feigned progressivism. That kind of disingenuous facade is also something that has run rampant in the culture at large in the aftermath of Weinstein, as the gatekeepers of a deeply entrenched patriarchal system have helped foster the illusion of change, all the while maintaining a certain underlying status quo.

Topple the careers of as many famous men as you want, the world seems to say, but we’re still going to let fireable harassment offenses and other toxic masculine behavior permeate the highest levels of government. In this climate, with blood and boobs decorating the screen, it’s as if the boy’s club running the show became the welcoming “woke” dad in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, reassuring us that it was ahead of the paradigm shift and would do right by the women of Westeros. It’s not inconceivable that some bad press might have filtered back to the clubhouse and precipitated this reformed quasi-abuser routine, but if so, it didn’t stick, because before long, the show would seemingly sweep the rug out from under us again. Its parting message? Whelp, that Targaryens are tyrants and bitches be crazy.

Despite it all, I have to say, personally, the knife twist of “The Bells” worked for me in the moment. It tracked with my perception of Daenerys, insofar as I viewed her as an Old Testament figure, more a vengeful goddess of justice than a lamblike goddess of love. As a viewer with an imaginative predisposition, I would sometimes put myself in a hypothetical scenario with Daenerys where I envisioned what it would be like if I were standing below the steps in her audience chamber, faced with the choice of bending the knee to her in the Great Pyramid of Meereen. I didn’t always agree with her (did you?), but I respected the sovereignty imbued in her by her dragons and royal lineage, which seemed to give her a viable claim to the Iron Throne.

I knew that her wrath, when provoked, could be terrible, but she also had a benevolent side. Hoping for the best, bracing for the worst, I could only project myself onto Tyrion, who was allowed to speak his mind and advise Daenerys with the provision that the final decision in all things rested with her, the (retroactively Mad) Queen.

R+L=J notwithstanding, it didn’t occur to me, initially, that the show was putting Daenerys on a regicidal collision course with Jon, but in hindsight, that made sense, at least going forward from the moment when she had her dragon mercilessly toast his best friend’s father and brother. Samwell Tarley was one of the few characters on the show who seemed like an all-around decent person, so seeing him reduced to tears at her imperious delivery of the news this season definitely cast the Mother of Dragons in a different light.

Now that she’s dead, what are we to make of this forceful heroine, whose story we followed for so long, only to see her break bad late in the game—thereby re-framing her as a firm anti-heroine, perhaps the greatest we’ve ever seen on television? Is there enough thoughtful political subtext in Dany’s arc to offset the disappointment of seeing a pop culture icon tarnished with an unfavorable narrative outcome?

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Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains

If you divorce Daenerys from gender and just talk about her as a leader, she fits the mold of a populist rather well. Google defines a populist as “a person, especially a politician, who strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.”

That’s precisely how Daenerys Targaryen made her name. Freeing the slaves of Yunkai, she became the Great White Feminist Hope, hoisted up and hailed as “Mhysa,” or Mother, to a crowd of dispossessed people. Later, she spearheaded the Liberation of Slaver’s Bay, indiscriminately crucifying 163 slave masters in retribution for the crucifixion of 163 children. An eye for an eye.

That she seemed better at conquering than ruling was almost an afterthought. Lest we forget, the first phase of her disastrous reign in Meereen ended with the Sons of the Harpy staging a surprise attack that forced her to retreat out of a fighting pit on the scaly back of Drogon. She left the city in shambles and it fell to Tyrion and Varys to try and do damage control while she was off in the mountains, licking her wounds and linking up with the Dothraki. Even when she flew back in to reassert her authority, her stay in Meereen was short, because she had her sights set on Westeros all along.

If you think of her as a domineering populist but also a feminist beacon, it almost seems like Daenerys wound up being a conflation of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, as filtered through the unlikely prism of a medieval fantasy epic. Depending on how you look at it, that’s either a juxtaposition of mismatched types or a pairing of ambition-oriented politicians, one of whom was clearly the lesser of two evils.

Martin conceived the character before the 2016 U.S. Presidential election was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, of course; and the populism wave of the 2010s is something that transcends national borders. It’s a global trend. It just so happens that this story drawing from cycles of history managed to align with one of those cycles as it was playing out again in the real world.

Dany’s eleventh-hour heel turn is something that was foreshadowed and feels true to the show and its ideas about power lust (see also: Stannis Baratheon). After Westeros: world domination. It rings true to the M.O. of a conqueror. That said, the inability to reconcile Dany’s contradictory qualities — signs of a dual nature that were scattered throughout the series all along — might explain some of the backlash toward her genocidal character evolution. “It’s all in the execution,” chimes the peanut gallery, and maybe it’s right.

The changing rhythms of Game of Thrones gave way to an accelerated pace near the end, which would have been fine if the show had, from the very start, been skipping and jumping and teleporting all over the map instead of grounding us with road journeys. There are some legitimate late-stage complaints about the sudden wholesale idiocy that seeped in to afflict canny customers like Varys amid the show’s widescreen plot machinations (apparently as a result of the rush to tie off Martin’s ever-expanding, possibly never-ending, book narrative). Martin wrote himself into a corner; the showrunners inherited the Meerenese knot, his term for the overwhelming narrative logistics that have slowed his book output.

At least the showrunners managed to end their story, which is more than we can say for Martin at this point. I would have to go back and do a series re-watch to judge how truly imbalanced the foreshadowing was with Dany’s character in action, as portrayed by Emilia Clarke. For now, I can only say that there’s undeniably an aspect to Dany’s rampage over King’s Landing that also mirrors the burn-it-all mentality of a jilted fandom circa 2019…

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