This series analyzes the show, but sometimes references the books as well. If you read it, expect spoilers for both.
Once upon a time, the British – who have demonstrated that they know their way around a TV show, or indeed anything involving acting – created a show called Upstairs, Downstairs. It covered the lives of a bunch of Edwardian-era posh noble types (the titular Upstairs) and their rough-and-tumble servants (the titular Downstairs). The constrast of these two worlds within the same manor house made for such interesting storylines that it was widely copied, and the phrase “Upstairs/Downstairs” became shorthand for an entire mini-genre. Downton Abbey is probably the best-known modern example.
The reason I mention this is that Game of Thrones has a certain Upstairs/DownstairsnessA perfectly cromulent word. to it, with one key difference: the downstairs is way better. Take, for example, the genuine and cheeful comraderie between the Night’s Watch/Wildling bunch (Jon/Sam/Edd/Tormund): backslapping hugs, comic timing, people experiencing actual human emotions – now this is a show I could actually like, with characters I could root for. Even the more reserved handshake between Jon and Beric rung true. There are more nice moments, like Tyrion topping off Pod’s wine, and the characters unironically applauding Ser Brienne’s impromptu knighting.
By contrast, everything upstairs rings off-key. The show tacked uncomfortably close to the truth last episode, when Sansa pointed out that for the past couple seasons, the quality of Tyrion’s decision making has split the difference between “drunken debutante” and “Custer at Little Big Horn.” So now, a succession of characters have to sing his praises, and talk the audience out of thinking that Sansa was right. Jon and Dany continue to have all the chemistry of olive oil and vinegar, and Sansa and Dany – well, I can’t figure out what exactly that was supposed to be. I guess they were supposed to be bonding, but it was overblocked and stiff as an I-beam.
I would feel like I’m getting ahead of myself – putting analysis before recap – but honestly there’s isn’t a whole lot to recap. At the end of last week’s episode, everyone was getting ready for the imminent arrival of the Night King. At the end of this episode? Same thing, except Jaime and Theon are here. Oh, and the show is trying to heave up a buzzer-beating Sansa/Theon ship from half court.
To kill time, there are a lot of variations on “this is our last night alive” that would probably work better if we didn’t all know that this was episode two of a six episode season. Most of them, as usual, are too long. However, they’re not all bad.
Pippin Podrick sings “The Edge of Night” “Jenny’s Song” and it’s a well-done, understated moment.”Jenny” is probably meant to be Jenny of Oldstones. It’s a book reference that, unsurprisingly, doesn’t have much to do with its use on the show. Arya and Gendry bang it out, and it’s awkward in a believable way (but again, way too long). Sam gets a bit about how memories are important, and part of what make us human. The staging is clumsy but John Bradley’s performance salvages at least part of it.
For all the occasional things they do right, the upstairs half of the show continues to drag down the rest, and it’s all the more frustrating because it seems to me that it’s down to a lack of nerve. There are certain issues that the show’s writers seem determined not to confront. One representative example: how exactly does Dany view Aerys Targaryen, the last Targaryen monarch before her? She certainly seems angry at Jaime Lannister for killing him. And yet we the audience know that Jaime slayed the King that made him “Kingslayer” because said King was about to light half a million people on fire. We the audience also know that Aerys was called “The Mad King” for a reason.
Does Dany know this? It’s not clear. It seems impossible that, eight seasons in, she wouldn’t be at least curious why Aerys had such a bad reputation. I’m almost certain that she’s acknowledged it in dialogue at least once; according to the Wiki it was during the episode “Hardhome.” But that never comes up during her browbeating of Jaime, or in any of the scenes following it. It’s unclear what exactly she thinks of her infamous father. Note that I didn’t say she was conflicted, I said it was unclear. It’s one of the ways in which the show has either a short or a long memory, according to convenience.
It seems like the writer’s solution to this tension is to gloss over it quickly enough that we don’t notice. This is frustrating to me because it makes for a good scene hook. Maybe Dany has a complicated relationship with the legacy of her father. Maybe she’s wary of becoming like him, knowing that being a feudal monarch requires a certain level of ruthlessness but also worrying that she’ll take it too far, or already has, and wondering where the line is. Perhaps she doesn’t know who to talk to about this, lonely as it as the top. Maybe she could talk to Jon about it? Part of romantic chemistry is a willingness to be vulnerable, isn’t it? Maybe Jon could open to Dany about his own doubts too? Maybe we could discover something about why these two are attracted to each other, aside from just the fact that they’re both good-looking and the script demands it?
Of course, it’s easier to brainstorm than it is to produce a final draft, but this issue speaks to one of my beliefs about writing: if you story contains an uncomfortable contradiction, confront it! It’s an opportunity! It’s a scene hook! Uncomfortable contradictions are one of the things drama is made out of. What you shouldn’t do is shoulder-fake around it, hoping the audience won’t notice. We will. We notice everything. It’s what makes us so infuriating.
Of course, there probably won’t be time to have any scenes like that. There are only four episodes left, and at least two of them will probably be big honking battles. Is it even worth it to be cranky about this? Spectacle is what’s commonly understood to pay the bills, but I’ve always questioned that understanding. I’ve always suspected that it’s the lower-key character moments that pile up the chips, and spectacle just cashes them in.
But maybe I’m wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. For instance, though I didn’t explicitly predict it, I thought that the “Jon is Rhaeger/Lyanna’s son” bit of gossip would go through 2-3 characters before it reached Dany. Instead, he went and told her directly. Long story short, she’s skeptical, and why wouldn’t she be? I’d be skeptical too. Even though my last prediction was wrong, I’ll go ahead and make another one: her skepticism is dramatically inconvenient and will be disposed of shortly.
We’ll see if I’m right soon enough. Back next week.
 A perfectly cromulent word.
 ”Jenny” is probably meant to be Jenny of Oldstones. It’s a book reference that, unsurprisingly, doesn’t have much to do with its use on the show.
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