“The Awful Grace of God”: Blue Bloods, Robert Kennedy, and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon

Last week’s episode of Blue Bloods, entitled “Unbearable Loss,” features an unexpected reference to the Classical world, in the form of a quotation from Agamemnon, the first tragedy in the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus. A police drama series might be an unusual place to find such a reference, but then again, Classical mythology remains so dominant in our culture that we shouldn’t be surprised to see it turn up in all corners of our entertainment.
Blue Bloods
stands out among police dramas for its willingness to confront significant issues involving the police beyond just “catching the bad guys,” which is the main focus in many other shows. The morality and ethics of policing, the influence of politics and the media, racial tensions and accusations of excessive force, the importance of proper legal procedure, and even the role of religion and faith–all these areas and more have been dealt with by Blue Bloods at one point or another. If any TV series about cops had the depth to reference ancient Greek literature in a intelligent and meaningful way, it would have to be this one.

In this episode, one of NYPD commissioner Frank Reagan’s political adversaries, Reverend Darnell Potter, a black community activist known for his fierce criticism of the NYPD’s treatment of African-Americans, goes through an “Unbearable Loss” when his son is killed.

At first, the reverend seems willing to work with the commissioner and his son Danny, the main detective on the case, to catch the killer, but is quickly angered by the police’s handling of the case. Not thinking clearly due to his grief and suspicious of the police in general, he tells members of the black community not to cooperate with investigators. Eventually, the reverend recognizes that his son’s killer cannot be apprehended without the police, and he asks the community to aid them. Danny catches the gang responsible, and in a moment of reconciliation, the reverend invites Frank to attend his son’s funeral.

Commissioner Reagan meets the reverend and promises to help find his son's killer

Commissioner Reagan meets the reverend and promises to help find his son’s killer

One major aspect of Blue Bloods is its emphasis on family relationships. The entire Reagan family is connected to law enforcement or the justice system in some way (Frank’s father was once commissioner, two of his sons are cops, and his daughter is a prosecutor), and each episode features a dinner scene, in which family members reflect on the events of the episode.

Blue Bloods family dinner scene

Blue Bloods family dinner scene

During the family dinner scene of this episode, Frank reveals that he has been asked to speak at the funeral and shares the quote that he plans to use–a quote from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (lines 179-183):

“And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

The main purpose of this reference, on the surface, is to convey through the evocative language of Aeschylus the intensity of the suffering and grief that accompanies a loss. Frank had intended to share this quote at the funeral of his eldest son Joe, who died in the line of duty, but couldn’t find the will to do so at the time. Now, by making use of this quote, Frank demonstrates his understanding and sympathy for the reverend’s loss through an expression of the pain and suffering he himself has gone through.

Beyond that, this quote also aligns with the Reagan family’s Catholic faith, in suggesting that the most difficult part of dealing with loss is having the wisdom and strength to accept God’s divine will, no matter how terrible it might seem. (Keep in mind that this is a translation of Aeschylus’ Greek that puts a Christian spin on it; the ancient Greeks with their many gods would have thought in a very different way.)

On the level of character and plot alone, this use of Aeschylus is already quite rich, but there’s another reason these lines resonates so well with this episode: they were famously quoted by Robert Kennedy in his speech on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. On April 4, 1968, at what was supposed to be an ordinary campaign event in Indianapolis, Kennedy informed a shocked audience that King had just been killed. Drawing upon the words of Aeschylus, Kennedy called for unity, compassion, and love against the forces of hatred, revenge, and violence:

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

Although there would be riots in many cities across the country that night, Indianapolis remained calm, in part because of Kennedy’s speech.

Robert Kennedy delivers his speech

Robert Kennedy delivers his speech

Interestingly, Kennedy’s quotation is actually a slight misquotation of Edith Hamilton’s 1930 translation of Aeschylus; this means that he did not have the “correct” verses in front of him, yet was still able to smoothly work them into his speech. In some way, this makes him even more impressive: to be able to remember these lines on the spot, he clearly had to have studied them quite closely. I don’t know any modern politicians who can recite lines of Greek tragedy from memory.

17th century painting depicting the sacrifice of Iphigenia

17th century painting depicting the sacrifice of Iphigenia

The Oresteia is a story about a shift in the nature of justice, from retributive violence to reconciliation and dialogue. Ten years before the events of the first play, Agamemnon, the titular war lord sacrifices his own daughter, Iphigenia, to secure favorable winds for his expedition to sail to Troy. Agamemnon returns home victorious, only for his wife to slay him out of revenge.

The cycle of vengeance continues as Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, kills his mother in retribution. Only the creation of a new justice system, based on open dialogue, proper legal procedure, and the rule of law, is able to end the cycle and move the community forward toward reconciliation.

By quoting from the Oresteia, Robert Kennedy was calling for his audience and for people across the country to respond to King’s death not by continuing a cycle of retribution and violence, but by striving toward justice and reconciliation through dialogue and understanding. The particular translation Kennedy was using refers to the Christian God and, like in the Blue Bloods dinner scene, the wisdom to accept His will in the face of loss, but it takes on additional meaning here: that we must accept that the path forward has to be one of love and forgiveness (i.e. the “grace of God”), no matter how terrible (“awful”) the loss of King may seem.

So, by referencing the same quote used by Robert Kennedy on that day in 1968, Blue Bloods is also calling for reconciliation and dialogue against the continuation of old grudges–in this case, between not only Frank and his adversary on a personal level, as the commissioner sympathizes with the reverend’s loss, but between the police officers and the African-Americans they represent.

Recent translation of the Oresteia trilogy

Recent translation of the Oresteia trilogy

Frank’s quotation of the Oresteia on its own already brings up ideas of reconciliation in general. Once we add to it the context of Robert Kennedy’s speech–the death of King, an exhortation for love and compassion in mending racial divides–it becomes clear that Blue Bloods is specifically calling for reconciliation and justice in overcoming racial tensions. And this is no surprise, given the role that such tensions played in this episode.

Finally, Robert Kennedy made use of this quote not just to call for reconciliation, but also, like Frank, to express the pain he himself had experienced in losing a loved one:

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

The quotation from Aeschylus occurs shortly afterwards. Kennedy is talking about the assassination of his brother, President Kennedy, of course, and is using the experience of that personal loss to sympathize with those who loved and respected Martin Luther King. In the same way, commissioner Frank Reagan uses the loss of his son to sympathize with the reverend as he goes through the loss of his son.

And, just as Kennedy recognizes commonalities in the deaths of King and his brother–both were killed by white people, he points out–Frank and the reverend realize the irony of their respective losses: the reverend’s son was killed by a black gang member who once participated in the reverend’s troubled youth program, and Frank’s son by a crooked cop.

Before we finish up, I want to mention again that the Christian interpretations of this quote that resonated so well with Robert Kennedy, the Reagan family of Blue Bloods, and a traditional American audience come about because of the way Edith Hamilton decided to translate these lines. Here is a more accurate translation of the original Greek (with some nearby verses for context):

Zeus guided mortals to have wisdom
and laid it down with authority
that from suffering comes learning.
And, in our sleep, at least, pain of unforgettable suffering
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
and wisdom comes to us against our will:
Perhaps the favor of the gods sitting on their
sacred throne comes about through force.
(Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, 176-183)

These verses are spoken by the Chorus of Elders, who wonder what lessons might come about from the terrible violence that occurs as Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter. One idea made use of by Robert Kennedy and Frank Reagan–that wisdom results from the suffering of our losses–remains intact. But, the Christian ideas of ultimate faith in the divine will of God or the power of His love and mercy do not appear. The ancient Greek gods, like Zeus, use force and suffering to deliver wisdom to us: a similar concept, but the grace and compassion of the Christian God are absent. Ultimately, though, wisdom does come about from these events, in the Oresteia‘s creation of a new justice system based on dialogue and reconciliation.

At the end of his speech, Robert Kennedy added:

And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Tragically, two months after he called for peace, compassion, and understanding, Robert Kennedy himself would be struck down by an assassin’s bullet.

Sources and Further Reading

Sansa’s Story: Analysis of Game of Thrones, Season 6 Episode 10, “The Winds of Winter”

The following post contains spoilers for season 6, episode 10, of Game of Thrones, “The Winds of Winter.”

Last time, I wrote about the aspects of Margaery’s story that I found disappointing in “The Winds of Winter,” and I tried to come up with an analysis to explain why her plot line was resolved in such a way. This time, I’m going to discuss Sansa’s story arc, which produced some mixed feelings for me.

Women in Power

Let me begin with the part that did not turn out as I had hoped. Before this episode, I was looking forward to seeing Sansa claim her position as Lady of Winterfell. She has been in the background for so long and has continually been victimized and held back in so many ways that I thought it was finally time for Sansa to enter a position of authority and power. She would be the one to restore the Stark name to Winterfell–or so I thought.

This idea didn’t just come out of nowhere. For one, I knew that Jon Snow did not want the seat of Winterfell. He was only fighting against the Boltons on his sister’s behalf and also to try to save Rickon. Winterfell, naturally, would be claimed by the legitimate heir of the Stark family–Sansa.

More importantly, having Sansa claim Winterfell fits into several major themes of Game of Thrones. The first theme has to do with female characters ascending into positions of power, and the finale highlighted this concept very well.

As Game of Thrones shifts into its end game, female leaders are dominant in the political landscape. Daenerys leads a coalition of factions led by women. The deal between Dany and Yara is made by two women–fellow queens–who are equals and are seeking to break tradition by becoming the first women to rule Westeros or the Iron Islands respectively. And, with Varys’ help, she’s earned the support of Lady Olenna and the women of Dorne. In the final scene of the episode, there is a sense of optimism and inspiration as Daenerys sets out for Westeros, with so many people behind her.

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Meanwhile, Cersei is now the most powerful person in King’s Landing. She sits upon the Iron Throne, having destroyed her enemies in a massive explosion of wildfire, but at the terrible cost of losing her son. Daenerys, in fact, killed the Khals earlier this season in a similar way–trapping them in a building that is destroyed by fire–but far from being inspired by Dany’s overturning of the Dothraki patriarchy, we are in this case struck by Cersei’s villainous descent into darkness, ruthlessness, and cruelty.

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Women are the figures of authority now, ranging across the entire spectrum from inspirational leader to ruthless villain. If nearly all the major political figures are female, it would be plausible to continue with this theme and have Sansa become the Lady of Winterfell.

The second (but related) theme has to do with people in marginalized positions rising to greatness. Davos, a smuggler and commoner, becomes the chief advisor to first Stannis and now Jon Snow, while Tyrion, who has been an outsider and outcast for his whole life, finds his calling as an advisor for Daenerys. As I mentioned, Sansa has been a sidelined character for a long time. Not only that, but women in general are marginalized in a medieval society like this one, and I thought it would make sense to work against that idea by having Sansa become ruler of the North.

Given all these thought processes, I really hoped that Sansa would rule in the North, and I was a bit disappointed when Jon Snow becomes the King in the North instead.

King in the North

I don’t have any major problem with Jon, however. I completely understand why he was the one chosen to lead the North.

It makes sense that the Northerners would support the man who actually led them into battle against the Boltons. He fought with them and risked his life alongside them–something Sansa can’t claim to do. Since winter is now here and White Walkers will be attacking soon, the North no doubt needs someone with military experience who knows how to handle logistics. Jon fits that description extremely well.

There are also thematic reasons that support Jon becoming the king. What I said about sidelined characters rising to greatness applies to Jon. He begins the series as the bastard son of Lord Stark, without a chance to ever really be accepted, but over the course of the series, he overcomes serious challenges and ultimately proves himself to be a legitimate Stark and the true ruler of the North.

jon snow

His plot line in season six mirrors that larger arc: he begins this season literally dead, only to rise again and become king. With his resurrection, Jon takes on the role of a heroic Christ-like savior figure, which is thematically the exact sort of inspirational figure who would become king. Perhaps he is, as Melisandre believes, the Prince who was Promised, who is supposed to lead the fight against the coming darkness.

After the revelation of his parentage in this episode, we realize that Jon represents a balance of the two major elements in Game of Thrones: fire and ice (as referenced in the name of the book series, A Song of Ice and Fire). He is a Stark (or more appropriately, a Snow) of the cold North, but also a Targaryen, represented by the fire of the dragon. He has entered the cold of death, only to be revived by the power of fire, which Melisandre’s Lord of Light stands for. He represents a balance of the two warring forces central to the series, and perhaps it is up to him to restore that balance.

It makes sense for Jon to become the heroic, inspirational king and leader that the North needs to survive the winter. The problem is that Jon a bit of an obvious choice, and Game of Thrones thrives on subverting our expectations. Game of Thrones is often at its best when destroying traditional notions of heroism, and it seemed too straightforward for Jon to be placed into that role. I thought that Sansa would be a less obvious choice to lead the North.

Sansa’s Resolution

I wanted to see Sansa receive some pay-off for her story arc, and that was why I was disappointed when she did not become the ruler of the North. But I do have to appreciate that she achieved a proper resolution to her plot line and character development this season, in a variety of more subtle ways.

Of course, we have to start with the scene from “Battle of the Bastards,” when she allows Ramsay’s dogs to brutally maul him. As she walks away with a hint of a smile on her face, we get the sense that she’s finally absorbed some of the ruthlessness and toughness necessary to make it in Game of Thrones.

We also see that she’s become a more skilled, hardened political operator, especially in her resistance to Littlefinger. She smartly says that “only a fool would trust Littlefinger,” in contrast to her father, who trusted Littlefinger in season one and was betrayed, imprisoned, and executed as a result. She rightfully questions his loyalty by saying that he’s declared for other houses before, yet always serves himself.

sansa and littlefinger

When Littlefinger says that he wants to claim the Iron Throne alongside Sansa, he seems to be at his most open and honest, but Sansa does not give in to his (sincere?) expression of love and loyalty. She rebuffs his advances and gives herself more power over him, since he now must work that much more to earn her “approval,” instead of being able to use her as a tool to take power for himself.

Finally, she walks away without a word of acknowledgement when he suggests that she has a better claim to Winterfell than Jon Snow, and this connects with her urging Jon to take the lord’s chamber because she considers him a Stark. I very much appreciate her lack of selfishness as she reveals her strong, renewed loyalty to family and, possibly, the understanding that Jon might make a better leader than herself.

This brings me to Jon becoming king instead of Sansa ruling the North, which I think actually fits in with the resolution of her story arc. Her insistence that Jon claim the lord’s chamber as a true Stark, her dismissal of Littlefinger’s divisive words, and her smile of pride as Jon becomes king–all that leads me to think that she purposely stands aside for Jon to rise to power (or even had something to do with the Northerners making him king–we don’t know how planned all that was.)

When she gives Littlefinger a look at the end of the scene, what she’s saying to him is that she has resisted him in allowing Jon to be king. Rather than claiming the seat of Winterfell for herself, allowing Littlefinger a path toward manipulating her position for himself, or standing against Jon as Littlefinger intends, Sansa demonstrates her family loyalty and her willingness to put aside any selfish, personal ambitions for the greater good, since Jon is the leader the North needs now.

sansa

If I’m right, Sansa is telling Littlefinger that she knows exactly what he’s trying to do and that he’s failing miserably to divide the Starks against each other. Sansa is keeping an eye on him. There’s been the suggestion that Littlefinger and Sansa will conspire to turn on Jon, but I think Sansa is too smart to listen to Littlefinger and doesn’t have the personal ambition to betray her family anyway.

As it turns out, the fact Sansa did not become ruler of the North is a significant part of her story-arc resolution this season. If it is true that she purposely stands aside for Jon to be king in order to resist Littlefinger’s manipulations. then she demonstrates a level of awareness, political acumen, loyalty to family, and lack of selfish desires that are all signs of positive character growth. Maybe I should not be too disappointed with Sansa’s plot line this season–her story arc has reached a proper conclusion after all.

Game of Thrones Analysis: Margaery’s Story in Season 6, Episode 10, “The Winds of Winter”

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The following post contains spoilers for season 6, episode 10, of Game of Thrones, “The Winds of Winter.”

“The Winds of Winter” was an incredibly exciting finale for Season 6. It was filled with so many amazing moments that I had a hard time deciding what to discuss in this post.

Should I talk about the terrifying moments culminating in tragedy, accompanied by a beautifully haunting soundtrack, as Cersei’s plot to blow up the Sept of Baelor unfolded? What about the moments of inspiration and optimism, as the North rallied behind Jon Snow and Daenerys sets out for Westeros? What should I say about Arya’s revenge against Walder Frey, or the revelation of Jon Snow’s parentage? And so on.

Even though there were so many satisfying plot resolutions packed with significance that I could talk about, I’m going to be talking about one part of the episode that disappointed me, which was the conclusion of Margaery’s story. When writing an analysis of a TV show, movie, or literary text, one technique that works well for me is to start with a question. In this case, instead of dismissing the parts that I didn’t like, I’m going to try to answer the question, “Why did Game of Thrones‘ story unfold in this way and what thematic significance emerges from presenting the narrative like this?”

A Rose Cut Short

In this episode, Margaery was killed in a way that I don’t think gave her story a proper resolution. In previous episodes, as she spoke of her faith in the gods and of her desire to repent for her sins, it was difficult to tell whether she was being genuine or was putting on a facade to manipulate the High Sparrow. But then, she secretly handed her grandmother a drawing of a rose, the Tyrell family sigil, as if to indicate that she still had her family’s best interests at heart, that her renewed “faith” was merely a convincing act, that she had a plan in mind to deal with the High Sparrow or improve her family’s standing..

As a fan of the show, I really wanted to see what Margaery planned to do. I wanted to see her pull off an impressive political maneuver and put the High Sparrow in his place. But, instead of such a satisfying end to her story–no victory over the High Sparrow, no successful political scheme–she simply died along with everyone else inside the Sept.

To make this moment even more frustrating for me, Margaery was the only who had an inkling of what Cersei was planning to do, but that knowledge did not save her. Having played the game of political maneuvering against Cersei for so long, Margaery realized that Cersei’s absence meant she would have an alternative plan in mind to handle her enemies. Margaery’s warnings could have saved everyone, but that did not happen.

To me, this moment did not fit with one of the core themes of Game of Thrones: that if you are cunning and clever, if you possess keen political acumen, if you display an awareness of what is happening around you, you will not only survive but thrive in this brutal world. Contrast this to Ned and Robb Stark’s moral codes of honor, which ended up killing them. Consider how Jon Snow fell into Ramsay’s trap in “Battle of the Bastards,” even though Sansa warned him about what could happen.

Again and again, we’ve seen that you need to be smart to succeed, and yet, when Margaery displayed the exact type of awareness and intelligence needed to do well in Game of Thrones, she still wound up being killed. So what gives? Why did one of the most fascinating characters in Game of Thrones with a promising plot line meet such an end?

Margaery should have survived the explosion because she did what she was supposed to–try to escape the Sept. However, she was prevented from leaving by the High Sparrow’s minions. So Margaery’s death–as well as the death of everyone else in the Sept–does not reflect any problem with her, but rather, reflects a problem in the High Sparrow’s behavior: being so overconfident in the security of his position and the righteousness of his actions, he was unable to accept that Cersei would dare plot against him or oppose him. He did not understand the extent of Cersei’s cunning.

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So, it looks like Margaery’s death does fit in with the show’s major themes, in that the High Sparrow’s lack of awareness leads to his own death and the deaths of everyone else in the Sept with him. But that’s not fair, is it? Margaery does what she is supposed to–be smart, be aware, and think carefully–but has her end dictated by the High Sparrow’s behavior. The idea, though, is that even when you do everything right and follow all the rules that should ensure survival, you can still wind up dead in the game of thrones. Those who are built up to do great things are often torn down in dramatic fashion, as we’ve seen with Ned and Robb.

There’s another explanation. As smart and cunning as Margaery is, she does not possess the streak of violence, cruelty, and vengeance that we see so clearly in Cersei. Margaery definitely plays the game well. She displays a keen understanding of politics and how to leverage perceptions and relationships. That can be an effective model of power, but in the end, it is only Cersei, with her capacity for ruthlessness, who would contemplate the wholesale destruction of her enemies. In Game of Thrones, being clever is perhaps not enough–an extra degree of ruthlessness is required to be victorious. It all comes down to one thing: who has the power and resources necessary to crush his or her enemies?

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Finally, Margaery’s death becomes a motivating factor for Lady Olenna, who now seeks revenge against Cersei for wiping out her family. If there is any “consolation” for the unfortunate end of Margaery’s story, it is that Lady Olenna–an incredibly fascinating character in her own right–will be plotting her vengeance, and in the coming seasons, we will be treated to more amazing acting by Diana Rigg.

If I was slightly frustrated by the loss of this promising character, I can only imagine how Olenna–who has lost any hope of a future for her family line–must be feeling. As Game of Thrones has shown, revenge and anger can be a powerful–and dangerous–motivator.

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A side note: I hoped to see Olenna take charge of the situation and become a powerful force to oppose Cersei, so I was somewhat disappointed that her story was so quickly tied into Daenerys’ plot. I guess that was a narrative maneuver necessary to clarify alliances as we move into the final two seasons.

Although I’m still disappointed that Margaery did not survive this episode and that we did not get to see her plans come to fruition, it helps to know that her death does fit into the show’s larger themes, and in that sense, she did not die “for no reason.” Personally, I would have preferred that she lived–it would have been great to see her crawling from the rubble after the explosion–but at least I can understand why it happened from a thematic perspective.

Okay, that’s it for now! I hope you enjoyed this post, and stay tuned for another Game of Thrones analysis in a couple of days, probably regarding Sansa and why she did not end up claiming the seat of Winterfell.

Game of Thrones Analysis: Loyalty and Authority in Season 6 Episode 9, “Battle of the Bastards”

Unlike the previous episode, which was filled with anticlimactic resolutions, “Battle of the Bastards” was a wild, thrilling ride that brought us to an immensely satisfying conclusion. It gave us, in many ways, exactly what we hoped, feared, and expected from Game of Thrones. Beneath the exciting bloodbath of it all was a fascinating examination of loyalty and authority. The main idea was that loyalty, more often than not, requires both parties–the followers and the leaders/authority figures–to bring something of benefit to the table. It depends on a reciprocal, two-way relationship.

The following post contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 6, Episode 9, “Battle of the Bastards.”

The reciprocal nature of loyalty is best encapsulated when Grey Worm asks the soldiers of the Masters to make a choice: “Fight and die for Masters who would never fight and die for you, or go home to your families.” The men instantly drop their weapons and leave. Loyalty, then, functions only when both leaders and followers receive something from the other. Why should these soldiers follow masters who have never done anything for them? By pointing out that their power is not based on a reciprocal arrangement, Grey Worm is able to quickly and easily undermine the authority of the Masters.

This is the same way in which Jon Snow attempts to undermine Ramsay’s authority: he challenges him to a one-on-one duel, which Ramsay of course refuses. Then, Jon asks essentially the same question which Grey Worm had asked earlier: “Will your men want to fight for you, when they hear you wouldn’t fight for them?” He tries to point out, basically, that Ramsay is not worthy of loyalty because he offers nothing in return to his men.

As a leader, Jon has had first-hand experience with the reciprocal nature of loyalty. He literally gave his life because he decided to help the Wildlings escape across the Wall, and in return, he receives unwavering support from Tormund. But he probably also remembers that Ser Aliser Thorne and the other members of the Night’s Watch became disloyal in the first place because he did not, in their eyes, “fight for them.”

Jon’s understanding of authority and loyalty extends from an idea of mutual respect between leaders and followers–an honorable concept that links him back to his father, Lord Stark. Quite fitting, for a Father’s Day episode.

On the other side is Ramsay, who represents a different model of authority. Inherited from his father, Roose, is a thirst for power, mixed with a cold pragmatism. To that, he adds his own unique brand of sadism, cruel violence, and psychological manipulation, which he brilliantly displays when he takes advantage of Jon’s loyalty to family by using Rickon to lure Jon and his army out of position. Loyalty, in this case, becomes an easy weakness to manipulate, not a strength.

The two models of authority come out most clearly in the middle of the battle, after the two cavalry forces have engaged one another. Ser Davos prepares to launch arrows, only to hold back from firing on his own troops. Ramsay, of course, pays no heed to the safety of his men, and tells his forces to loose their arrows. Pragmatically, Davos’ side has fewer forces and can’t afford to lose any men, whereas Ramsay’s superior numbers mean that he can sacrifice these men. In terms of loyalty, however, what is clear is that one leader sees his men as expendable, while the other respects his men and refuses to throw away their lives.

Once Jon’s forces are out of position, Ramsay sends in Smalljon Umber’s soldiers to surround and crush them with their massive shields. Remember what Lord Umber did when he decided to support Ramsay back in “Oathbreaker”? He refused to kneel or swear an oath of fealty, but he turned over Rickon and Osha because he knew that the power dynamics in the North were changing and it was time to side with the Boltons. Lord Umber’s contribution in this battle is essential to Ramsay’s strategy, yet his support is dependent not on respect or loyalty but on the pragmatic gains in power he can make by helping the Boltons crush the Starks.

We had thought, perhaps, that Ramsay’s lack of loyalty to his own men would be his downfall as Jon had suggested, but for all their deficiencies, Ramsay’s cruel pragmatism and sadistic violence prove extremely effective in battle, and he almost achieves a crushing blow against Jon, whose loyalty to Rickon becomes a glaring disadvantage. As expected, Game of Thrones tells us that, when it comes to authority, there is no room for any idealistic belief in loyalty or respect. There is only authority based on violence, manipulation, and power for power’s sake.

Ramsay does, in the end, lose. Sansa calls upon a favor from Littlefinger, who brings in the Knights of the Vale at the last second to deliver a finishing blow against the Bolton forces. But loyalty is a two-way street. This favor from Littlefinger is not free. What will Sansa have to do or give up in order to maintain the support of this master manipulator? This idea of loyalty as a reciprocal relationship takes on a dark edge, when we realize that Sansa will be indebted to this man who inevitably cannot be trusted.

It would have been fitting to mirror the soldiers’ abandonment of the masters with a scene of Ramsay’s soldiers refusing to fight for him because they realize he is not worthy of their loyalty. Instead, we receive a moment of greater thematic significance for Ramsay when his dogs turn against him. His dogs have long been the symbol of his main source of power, which was his use of fear, sadistic violence, and cruelty as weapons of control and intimidation.

In this episode, Ramsay purposely starves them, presumably to make them more vicious, thereby increasing his own ability to intimidate his enemies. This is a one-sided, unilateral relationship that gives no regard to the well-being of the dogs and expects them to simply play their parts and remain “loyal beasts,” as Ramsay calls them. But how can they be loyal to him, when he has no loyalty to them and decides to starve them?

Because he does not understand that loyalty should be a two-way relationship, Ramsay’s actions come back to bite him (quite literally), and it is absolutely fitting that his death turns out to be his own fault–not only are his dogs paying him back for his disregard of them, but it is Sansa who unleashes them upon him in vengeance for what he has done to her. His own cruelty returns to destroy him in an extremely satisfying way.

Let’s return now to Meereen. The Masters command no loyalty from their soldiers because they’ve never done anything for them; that is, they themselves have no loyalty to their followers. But they also lack loyalty in another key area–towards each other. When Missandei says that one of them needs to die for breaking their agreement, they do not present a united front, but are quick to turn on one another out of self-interest.

Yet it is this tendency toward treachery that gets them killed, for Grey Worm instantly kills the two Masters who are the quickest to betray their ally. Daenerys and her government are able to eliminate the Masters who have demonstrated a lack of loyalty and predilection for betrayal–those who are more difficult to work with because of their untrustworthiness.

Meanwhile, the Master who remains is not only the least likely out of the three to be a traitor (for he did not turn on his friends right away), but he is also indebted to Daenerys and her followers for their mercy–a “favor” that can be held over his head in return for his “loyalty.” It doesn’t hurt, also, that the threat of dragons has been seared into his mind.

Political power depends on some sense of “loyalty,” in terms of the reciprocal exchange of favors, deals, and promises. Those who cannot be trusted to uphold their agreements do not make it very far because no one will ever make any deals with them, or will prefer to wipe them out rather than take any chances. (Littlefinger, however, has managed to survive this long, probably because he has made so many deals with so many people that he always has an escape route available to him.)

A failure to understand the importance of loyalty gets both Ramsay and the Masters killed. However, we have to understand that Game of Thrones does not offer a naive view of loyalty. It does not always win out and is not always a good thing, for Jon’s strong sense of family loyalty to Rickon is easily manipulated and nearly results in his complete defeat. Game of Thrones portrays loyalty as a double-sided sword: too much of it can destroy you, while a total lack of it can also do the same, not because it is morally wrong or dishonorable, but because, in a practical sense, it means no one will ever trust you to uphold your side of an agreement.

One last note about a different kind of loyalty–religious faith in a higher being. When Jon Snow visits Melisandre before the battle, we see that her belief in the Lord of Light is a one-sided arrangement. When asked why her god would help to bring Jon back, she says, “Maybe he brought you here to die again,” to which Jon answers, “What kind of god would do something like that?” Melisandre responds, “The one we’ve got.”

This indicates that while she is completely committed to following her god and continues to follow his orders, she no longer has any expectation that his plan for the world must be a grand, wondrous thing, as she once did, back when she believed Stannis was the Prince who was Promised. His plan for Jon might simply go as far as bringing him back for the purpose of killing him again. The Lord’s plan might involve further death and suffering, and despite that, Melisandre still has faith, because the Lord of Light is the god “we’ve got.”

This is the same contradictory struggle many people of faith go through when something terrible happens: they continue to offer loyalty and obedience to God, even though the horrible events that have occurred must be, somehow, a “part of his plan.” This sort of faith in the divine is a one-sided and absolute loyalty that is very different from the reciprocal, two-way loyalty expected in the realm of mortals.

That’s it for now! Stay tuned for a post next week about the final episode of Season 6, “The Winds of Winter.”

Game of Thrones Analysis: Anticlimactic Subversions in Season 6 Episode 8, “No One”

The following post contains spoilers for Season 6 Episode 8 of Game of Thrones, “No One.”

Many fans were disappointed by some of the anticlimactic plot line resolutions this week on Game of Thrones. Several major stories seemed to come to an end without much of an exciting pay-off. But one thing that is important to remember is that Game of Thrones never gives you exactly what you hope for.

Game of Thrones, after all, is a show known for its ability to subvert our expectations. The key example, of course, is the death of Lord Stark in Season 1. When he was imprisoned by the Lannisters, we assumed that he would somehow survive. After all, he was the noble, heroic protagonist of the story. Surely, we thought, he would find some way to live through this ordeal, for the sake of the plot. But his startling and dramatic execution proved us wrong. No one was safe in this world.

We had been taught that being a noble, honorable figure gave a character absolutely no guarantee of survival. It had been made clear that traditional narratives of heroism had no place on Game of Thrones. Yet, we quickly bought into the narrative that Robb Stark, the young King of the North, would rise to be a great leader and avenge his father. Of course he would. That’s how these stories work, right? But we were proven wrong again, when Robb’s mistakes came back to destroy him in brutal fashion at the Red Wedding.

Since then, expected narratives have continued to be subverted. Melisandre believed fervently that Stannis was the heroic Prince who was Promised, but that prophecy quickly fell apart with Stannis’ death. On the issue of heroism, who would have expected at the beginning of the series, that Sansa, one of the “weaker” characters, would now have a pivotal role to play in reclaiming the North? Daenerys’ heroic act of freeing the slaves quickly dissolved into a political and administrative nightmare as she struggled to control Meereen. No “traditional” story of heroism functions quite as expected.

However, there has been one “narrative” about Game of Thrones that has been consistently maintained: that this is a world of shocking moments and grand, dramatic gestures of brutality, and death. At every turn, an exciting “climax” is waiting to jump out and kill our favorite characters or provide us with yet another violent, blood-filled clash.

In the latest episode, “No One,” Game of Thrones continued this trend of subverting expectations… by providing us with a bunch of anticlimaxes that reverse the show’s own trend toward narratives of death and destruction.

No Vengeance for the Hound

Let’s start with the Hound. He starts off this episode by killing four members of the Brotherhood without Banners, in retaliation for the murder of the villagers last week. Brutal, horrific deaths? Completely normal, and expected for Game of Thrones.

Then, he runs into the Brotherhood, and it turns out that the massacre of the villagers and Septon Ray was perpetrated by rogue members of the Brotherhood. What follows is a very odd negotiation with the Brotherhood about how many of these rogue agents he gets to kill and how violently he should do it. It’s a strangely “civilized” scene, amidst such violence and destruction. The Hound says that, once, he might have fought all of the Brotherhood for the chance to slaughter these men, but he quickly puts that aside–even he seems tired by the constant death and destruction of Game of Thrones.

He ends up getting to kill two of them, by simply removing the stumps beneath them and letting their necks break–no brutal, violent deaths for them, and the Hound earns no satisfaction of achieving proper vengeance. As Rob Bricken from io9 notes, “It’s an anticlimax for the Hound and everyone watching.”

The trend toward bloodbaths as a narrative resolution in Game of Thrones is subverted, and, unusually, especially for someone like the Hound, this plot line ends peacefully and amicably, with Sandor Clegane apparently about to join the Brotherhood and set out on a new mission. We are almost amazed at the lack of violence.

Riverrun is Taken

Now, let’s talk about another anticlimax: the death of the Blackfish. Earlier episodes had built up the Blackfish as an obstinate, stalwart defender of Riverrun. Yet in this episode, that reputation quickly falls apart. The true Lord of Riverrun, Edmure, overrules the authority of the Blackfish and commands his men to surrender. The Blackfish refuses to escape with Brienne and decides to stay to defend the castle, and we expect a dramatic final scene as he fights to the death–a heroic moment to justify his reputation.

.As Jaime says, “He is an old man. A good death is all he can hope for,” but even that is taken from him, for the Blackfish receives no heroic or worthy death on screen. He simply dies, and we do not see it. His death is pointless. His character has been built up, only to be broken apart, with no purpose fulfilled. He represents no advantage for Sansa’s efforts in the North. He loses Riverrun to the Lannisters and Freys. Contrary to his reputation, he achieves no dramatic, final moment.

We have to note that the entire siege of Riverrun ends without a single drop of blood being spilled on-screen. Jaime Lannister captures Riverrun without once raising his sword. Not quite the exciting battle that we hoped for. Instead, the most brutal scene of all is not a grand bloodbath of armies clashing, but the conversation filled with dark, threatening words by which Jaime forces Edmure to capitulate. This time, violent words prove just as effective as violent actions.

Trouble for Cersei

In King’s Landing, Cersei unleashes the zombified Mountain against the Faith Militant. That one moment of grotesque violence foreshadows Cersei’s ultimate plan: to escape the charges against her via trial by combat, which is guaranteed to be an exciting bloodbath, if the Mountain is involved.

Fans had been clamoring for the “Cleganebowl”–a showdown between the Hound and his brother. But Tommen, under the power of the High Sparrow, outlaws trial by combat, and what would have been a violent, dramatic plot device vanishes: no climactic Cleganebowl for the fans and no magical escape for Cersei. Exciting bloodbaths, this time, are not the answer.

Arya Remains Arya

Now, let’s discuss Arya. After her serious blunders last week–flaunting her bags of cash, walking around Braavos seemingly without a care in the world, and then getting stabbed–fans were expecting some kind of trickery. Perhaps some clever face-swapping. Maybe this Arya was not the real one. Or was this a test from Jaqen? But no–it seems that Arya was in fact careless enough to get stabbed. Whether that’s bad writing or purposeful characterization is debatable, but in any case, our expectations again are subverted.

Some people predicted, like I did, that she would receive help from the actress Lady Crane, and that turned out to be correct. However, that too was an anticlimax: instead of Arya joining the acting troupe and creating a new connection with this mother-figure, the Waif kills Lady Crane–a bit of a disappointment after all the emphasis being placed on the acting troupe, but of course, no one is ever safe in Game of Thrones.

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After Arya takes down the Waif,she returns for a final encounter with Jaqen, who proclaims, “Finally a girl is No One.” Whether he’s just saying that because she has a sword pointed at him, because she happened to “win,” or because she has passed another test is unclear, but here is her chance to learn some exciting, face-changing, assassination skills. This is what we’ve been waiting for, isn’t it? The culmination of her story in Braavos…

But no. Arya rejects all that and decides to remain Arya Stark. Perhaps a fitting conclusion for her, yet in some ways this is a huge anti-climactic letdown: all that development over two seasons, all that time spent in magical assassin school, and nothing to show for it, except something that could’ve been resolved long ago?

But I think, in fact, that she did achieve some significant character development. Jaqen gives a subtle nod when Arya affirms her own identity, as if that was what she needed to do all along. Perhaps Arya learned that power for its own sake–as embodied by the amoral Faceless Men ideology–is not worth abandoning her sense of personal identity and morality by killing Lady Crane. To some extent, she did learn some of the advantages of being No One–of being anonymous and hidden–through exposure to the Faceless Men, but she did so without forgetting who she is.

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She did also improve her physical abilities: she is is able to run and jump rather quickly across Braavos, and her fighting skills allow her to fight in the dark to take down the Waif. And, if it was her plan to lure the Waif back to that dark room, where she would have an advantage, then perhaps Arya wasn’t as stupid in this instance as we thought and was actually showing her quick thinking under pressure.

Not exactly the most exciting stuff: no magical face-swapping, no stealthy assassination techniques, or mystical Faceless Men secrets, but maybe the point is that she doesn’t need any of that in the first place, and perhaps being true to herself is the more important source of power for her. The question had been introduced of how far she’d be willing to lose herself in order to gain power, and now, we have an answer: no, not quite that far. In the end, personal development and a confirmation of identity proves more important than the flashy, exciting stuff.

So, what we see in the end is that Game of Thrones remains committed to subverting our expectations. No vengeance for the Hound. No heroic death for the Blackfish. No Cleganebowl and no trial by combat. No new assassination skills for Arya. In some ways, this episode represented a letdown for everyone: not just us, but some of the characters too. Nothing goes the way we expect or hope. It’s as if Game of Thrones is commenting that its own reliance on dramatic spectacles of death, destruction, and violence has been overdone, and perhaps, there are other ways to resolve a plot line that are almost shocking because of the exciting, flashy moments we’ve come to expect.

This adds an undercurrent of dread to the other plot lines. With Daenerys’ return to Meereen, we hope that her dragons would devastate the Masters’ fleet and lead to a great victory, but who knows how Game of Thrones will try to pull the rug out from under us? Next week, Sansa and Jon will try to retake Winterfell from Ramsay, and knowing how our expectations are always subverted, can we really hope for any kind of victory? It’s along this same line of reasoning that I expect Varys’ journey to turn out badly, somehow.

How far can Game of Thrones push this idea? At some point, the story will have to wrap up in a satisfactory way, instead of continually subverting our hopes and expectations. It’s a question I’m sure George R.R. Martin and the showrunners have had to contend with, and we’ll have to see how, ultimately, they decide to conclude this story.

Game of Thrones Analysis: Female Power and Identity in Season 6 Episode 1, “The Red Woman”

For the past year, devoted fans of Game of Thrones have been eagerly waiting to learn the fate of Jon Snow, who seemingly met his end during season 5’s finale. Was he, in fact, dead? Could he live on by “warging” into his direwolf, Ghost? Perhaps the Red Woman, Melisandre, would use her power to bring him back to life. The name of the episode only added fuel to the fire.

The following post contains spoilers for season 6 episode 1, of Game of Thrones, “The Red Woman.”

As it turned out, the premiere episode of season 6 was not really about Jon Snow, but more about other characters having to deal with the repercussions of his death. Ser Alliser Thorne, the perpetrator of Jon’s murder, had to go through some rather torturous logic to convince himself and the Night’s Watch that his “loyalty” remained intact, despite betraying the Lord-Commander. On the other side, Davos and Jon’s friends must figure out how to survive what has become an incredibly tense situation. Davos, notably, has no more king to serve; perhaps now he has found another cause to support in defending the legacy of Jon Snow?

The Red Woman’s Crisis of Faith

But what I really want to discuss is the response of Melisandre, the titular Red Woman, to Jon’s death. With her presence at Castle Black, we had expected or imagined or hoped for a magical resolution to the loss of Jon Snow. Many fans had put their faith in her to bring back a beloved character, but she herself seems to be having a crisis of faith. In her visions, Melisandre had seen Stannis victorious over the Boltons and Jon Snow fighting at Winterfell, but none of that has come true. Jon’s death contributes to the idea that she has somehow been abandoned or misguided by her “Lord of Light.”

Melisandre’s power and identity extends from two sources: her fervent faith in the Lord of Light, whom she thought would make her visions come true, and her sexual confidence and beauty as a woman. The two had existed in conjunction, but now that she has started to lose her faith, so too does the other aspect of her identity collapse. When she takes off her necklace, she reveals her true form as a tired, withered old woman; she is no longer the confident, beautiful religious fanatic she once was.

Like us, Melisandre expected Jon Snow to play a major role within an expected narrative. For us, it was a story of heroism, in which Jon Snow would be the successful hero his father and brother were not; for the Red Woman, he was to fight alongside Stannis, as her prophecies suggested. But with his death, Game of Thrones subverts the standard narrative and, with his lack of resurrection, reminds us that there are no easy, magical answers. Should we have “faith” in the narrative and believe that Jon Snow will return? Will regaining faith in her god and in her own power allow Melisandre to somehow bring the narrative back on track by restoring Jon Snow to life? We shall have to see.

The central theme of this episode has to do with the nature of female power and identity. As we’ve seen, the story at Castle Black may depend on Melisandre overcoming her crisis of faith and using the power of her god to bring back Jon Snow.

Sansa and the Fate of the North

Similarly, the political realities at Winterfell are shifting on the basis of Sansa regaining her power and identity. Last season, under the guidance of Littlefinger, she seemed to be coming into her own as a master of intrigue, but she (disappointingly) became a victim once again after being married to Ramsay. Still, under her own initiative, she did encourage Reek (a.k.a. Theon) to resist his master and the two ended up escaping from the clutches of the Boltons.

In this episode, they are nearly re-captured by Bolton thugs, at which point Brienne and Pod show up to save the day. Sansa, despite what she’s been through, remains as poised as she can and manages to speak the formal words needed to accept Brienne’s service.

Something about the whole scene still bothered me, despite Sansa’s good luck, and I think it was the fact that Sansa seemed to be relying on others–Theon and Brienne–to “save her” once more. On her own, Sansa has proven quite ineffective at almost everything, and has consistently needed help to get anything done at all. The difference now seems to be that Theon’s change in attitude was a result of her encouragement. Brienne’s aid, unlike that of Littlefinger, is without self-interest and comes not from a man trying to take advantage of Sansa, but from a powerful female figure motivated by honorable goals.

The exchange of these oaths, which normally occurs between a lord and his generally male knight, now takes place between two women, with the men there only in an advisory capacity. Sansa turns to Theon, who nods his agreement, before accepting Brienne’s aid, and Podrick has to assist her with the wording of her oath, but in the end, this scene is about Sansa once more becoming (or at least trying to be) a true Lady and Brienne finding someone she can serve with honor and integrity.

Back at Winterfell, the Boltons are coming off their huge victory against Stannis, but their political position has become increasingly precarious after Sansa’s escape–a fact that Roose points out to Ramsay. They had placed their hopes at dominating the North into Ramsay’s marriage to Sansa and having control over a Stark heir. This was what made Ramsay valuable to his father. But without Sansa, Ramsay is no longer quite as important, and so, Roose now threatens to make Lady Walda’s unborn child the Bolton heir instead.

We have seen, traditionally, a woman’s power and standing depending on her relationship with a man. Consider Margaery, whose position in King’s Landing depends on her marriage to Tommen. In this case, the reverse is true: Ramsay’s political standing and the success of the Boltons in controlling the North relies primarily on a female figure–Sansa.

While in a controlled and oppressed state, Sansa had little power or autonomy in defining her identity, and that allowed the Boltons to use her name, lineage, and identity for their own political advantage. Now that she has partially reclaimed that identity as a Stark lady, the pendulum of power is starting to swing away from the Boltons back to the Starks. The entire political fate of the North may very well depend on Sansa’s actions at this point.

Being No One

Sansa begins to earn some measure of power by re-affirming her status as a Stark lady of noble blood, which is a traditional source of female power in Game of Thrones. Her sister Arya, however, has approached the issue of feminine identity in a very different way. She did not identify as a Stark noblewoman, but rather a warrior, as signified by her sword, Needle. But during the last season, she was asked to get rid of Needle (she only hid it), forget about Arya Stark, and become No One, a member of the Faceless Men.

Being anonymous grants the Faceless Men their power. Unlike Sansa, it seems that Arya’s power was to come from casting aside her Stark identity. In killing Ser Meryn, Arya showed that she could not do so and was punished, placed into a helpless state of blindness, as a result.

This series of events reminded me of the Cyclops episode in the Odyssey. Calling himself “No One” lets Odysseus fool the Cyclops, but his later decision to boast of his heroic identity as a warrior leads to his being cursed by Poseidon.

Although we do want Arya to regain her power, I don’t think we would like it very much if she permanently lets go of who she is. It’s a careful negotiation she will have to go through. How far can she go in her quest for power as a nameless assassin? Can she ever return to her identity as a Stark, and what form would that take?

Full Circle

In this episode, Daenerys faces the struggle of defining herself in the male-dominated world of the Dothraki. When she is captured and brought before Khal Moro, it is assumed that she is to be a sex slave or that she is a foreign, white-haired witch. In a powerful performance by Emilia Clarke, Dany unleashes a huge list in the Dothraki language of her titles and achievements, but these mean nothing to Moro. Her conquests and political successes–what she has, generally, earned by her own actions–are irrelevant.

It is only the revelation that she was once married to Khal Drogo that has any significance to Moro, who begins to treat her with some respect. Dany had fought for a long time to earn power and authority on her own terms, but she is once more brought back into the narrow box of being defined by her relationship to a man. She tries to revert back to her status as queen and political leader by negotiating with the Dothraki to let her return to Meereen. However, according to the standards of Dothraki society, she cannot claim such a non-traditional status: she must instead conform to the expected role of a Khal’s widow and live out her days at Vaes Dothrak. As a woman, she has no claim to her own identity, except that placed on her by others. (Back in Meereen, she has become a tyrant to some, instead of the great leader she hoped to be.)

Death in Dorne

Now consider what happens in Dorne, a society where men and women, it is said, are supposed to be equal, which apparently means that women are as capable of using violence and murder to take their revenge and seize power as men are. We see this when Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes brutally murder Prince Doran Martell and his son Trystane.

It remains unclear the purpose of all this. It seems that Ellaria and the Sand Snakes have short-sightedly steered themselves directly into war with the Lannisters. As usual, the long view–whether of Jon Snow in saving the Wildlings, or of Prince Martell in preserving peace–proves to be less popular than anger and retribution.

Cersei Loses Hope?

Let’s conclude with Cersei, who is losing grip on her identity as a mother, after Joffrey and now Myrcella have died. Like Melisandre, she must contend with the role of prophecy in her life. For the Red Woman, the prophecies of the Lord of Light had given her faith, only for them to fail her. Meanwhile, for Cersei, the prophecy given to her by the witch–of her children’s death–is beginning to come true, and by buying into that narrative, she begins to lose hope in everything (as indicated by her grim comments about dead bodies and crypts): not only the future of her remaining child, King Tommen, but herself, for it is only through him that she possesses any political power at all.

Jaime attempts to counteract the prophecy and turn things around by affirming Cersei’s identity as a Lannister and as his lover/sister. “F*** prophecy!” F*** everyone who’s not us!”  he says. “We’re the only ones who matter in this world!” I had thought Jaime was becoming a better man, but it seems that his daughter’s death has changed that. It remains to be seen whether Cersei buys into this vengeful “us-versus-them” mentality that Jaime’s trying to create. Will it help Cersei be able to return to her scheming “old self”?

Conclusions

So, if the first episode of the season is any indication, it seems that female power and identity will be major issues in season 6 of Game of Thrones. The fate of Jon Snow may depend on Melisandre re-capturing her identity, just as the political future of the North depends on Sansa re-affirming her status. Brienne seems to have found the identity she has sought, while Daenerys is still fighting to identify herself as a great political leader on her own merits. And the outcome of the coming war between the Lannisters and Dorne may very well depend on the role of “female power.” We’ll have to see how this theme develops throughout the rest of the season.

Some sections of this post were based on ideas brought up in this io9 article. Be sure also to watch “After the Thrones” on HBO for additional discussion of the latest episode.

Legends and Legacies in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This post has to do with the analysis of themes and issues from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, so that means I will be discussing major plot elements. Please do not read further if you do not want to be spoiled about what happens in the movie.

A significant theme in The Force Awakens is how to contend with the legends and legacies of the past handed down to us. On one level, the original trilogy has come to represent for us a cultural myth that has ascended to an almost legendary status. Director J.J. Abrams had to figure out how to take Star Wars in a new direction while respecting the legacy of the original films. I think in that area he generally succeeded.

But another way in which he dealt with this issue was, I think, by incorporating it into the story of the film itself. The plot and the actions of characters are largely driven by their responses to the legends and legacies handed down to them. Just as we now think of the original Star Wars trilogy as a legendary set of films, the characters in The Force Awakens look back at the events of the original trilogy as mythical moments.

Rey exclaims, “I thought he was just a legend,” when she hears that Luke Skywalker is real. Finn and Rey are both excited to meet the heroic, legendary figure Han Solo (just as we are excited to see him again), but Finn knows him as a great general of the Rebel Alliance, while Rey sees him as the famous smuggler. The fact is that he is both, but it seems to be the case that the same myth can represent different things to different people.

One of the central story lines revolves around the search for Luke Skywalker. The Resistance believes he can help to turn the tide in their fight against the First Order, while the First Order seems to think that he is the last one who can threaten their plans. But in actuality, what can he do? He is just one man. But his legendary status as hero of the events of the original trilogy and as a great Jedi makes people believe that he has the power to change the course of the war.

I think this will prove to be an major plot point in the next film. The future right now seems hopeful, with the First Order having suffered a huge defeat, and Luke Skywalker having finally been found. But just as The Empire Strikes Back injected a jolt of reality into the happy ending of A New Hope (by showing that the Empire was as powerful as ever), I think the next film’s jolt of reality will be that finding Luke Skywalker does not completely change everything as we expect.

Sure, Rey now has a teacher in the ways of the Force, but who’s to say Luke wants to come back? He disappeared after thinking he had failed as a teacher. What can he do against the power of the First Order? In the end, seeking out this heroic figure probably won’t lead to much.

Now let’s talk briefly about the First Order. They clearly see themselves as successors to the Empire’s legacy. Snoke seems to be carrying on the role of the Emperor. And the new Starkiller weapon is obviously based on the Death Star–again there is this obsession with insane super-weapons. They seem to be purposely emulating the work of the Empire, just as the Resistance sees itself as the successor to the earlier Rebel Alliance and the New Republic echoes the Republic of earlier days. Everyone is calling on the past to define themselves.

No one does this in the film more than Kylo Ren, who tries to define himself based on the legacy of Darth Vader. He keeps Vader’s helmet as a relic and even speaks to it/him, indicating his deep veneration of his famous grandfather as the ultimate symbol of the Dark Side. But Kylo Ren goes even further in doing absolutely everything he can to emulate Vader, to an absurd level that the film itself states.

Vader is famous for his frightening helmet equipped with a breathing apparatus, so what does Ren do? He wears a scary mask with a similar breathing device, so that he can be exactly like Vader. The ridiculousness of wearing a bunch of stuff just to be a “scary Sith lord” is so absurd that Resistance pilot Poe actually makes fun of Ren, saying that he has a hard time hearing him with everything covering his face.

Kylo Ren in his “scary” Sith outfit with, of course, a red lightsaber.

Most notable is what Han Solo says to his son during their final confrontation: “Take that mask off! You don’t need it!” And it’s absolutely true. He has no need to wear a mask. The only reason he does is his desire to be the one to carry on Darth Vader’s legacy.

But this desire is part of a deeper internal struggle within Kylo Ren, which is what makes his character so compelling. Which legacy should he maintain? Which figure should he look to for inspiration, his father or his grandfather? Should he follow the Dark Side, or the Light Side? Kylo Ren’s story arc is driven by all these questions, and it comes to a frightening and troubling conclusion in The Force Awakens when he kills his father and chooses the Dark Side–and Darth Vader–over the Light.

This is actually quite fascinating, in that this is the reverse of Darth Vader’s relationship with Luke. In the original trilogy. Vader had tried to lure Luke to the Dark Side based on familial ties, but here, Kylo Ren struggles to stay on the Dark Side and has to avoid “falling back” to the Light. His final “test” is, like Luke’s, to “confront his father”–but his killing of Han Solo is in fact a betrayal, not a victory. It is in the inversions like this that The Force Awakens re-invents the old formulas of the original trilogy. 

The film leaves us wondering who Rey’s parents are. The implication is that her parentage should tell us whose legacy she is meant to carry on. Based on her possession of Luke’s lightsaber and her skill not only in handling mechanical things but also in the use of the Force, we might suspect that she is Luke’s daughter. Perhaps she is a continuation of the Skywalker family? There is a certain satisfaction to knowing where you come from and to whom you can look for inspiration and guidance.

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But maybe Rey is from somewhere else. Maybe her parents are truly unknown. Maybe her Force powers are her own, not inherited from a famous lineage. And this would mean that she has a greater opportunity to create her own, unique legacy. She can look to the past and the Skywalker legend for guidance, but she can move forward and make something new of herself.

That is exactly what The Force Awakens tries to do in relation with the original trilogy: it takes its inspiration from the legacy of the past, but it also makes an effort to look forward and move in new directions. So, thematically, it would be quite fitting for Rey not to be a Skywalker or the daughter of a famous Force-user. She would represent the passing of the torch over to a new generation and the end of the Skywalker era, but of course we’ll have to see what happens in the next film.

At the heart of The Force Awakens is the question of how much power the stories and symbols from the past ought to have. Legends have power, but what should that power be? Which legends and myths are important to us, and why? Do we value the correct symbols in our society, or do we improperly follow the wrong narratives? And what is the line between fiction and reality, as far as these legacies are concerned? Does the reality align with our expectations?

I found it very interesting that the issue faced by The Force Awakens of how to handle the Star Wars legacy is echoed by the plot of film itself. As we move forward and the new Star Wars films of this era come out, we’ll have to see what they do to deal with the huge expectations that have been heaped upon them.