Apr 23, 2015 01:34

So about five months ago, I had every intention of writing about at least one narrative decision which I love and which fandom hates. And then I got sidetracked from the meme (not sure why, since opening up this document I see that I had several of them either planned or done???) but also, which decision? I've already talked about plenty of roundly-despised choices made by my shows - S4 of AtS, S5 of The Wire, the vast majority of decisions made by Julie Plec and Jeremy Carver - but that is still the FOR STARTERS list. How, then, to reach into the miasma of fandom opinion and grasp one topic?

But then the Lord of Light showed me the way: GAME OF THRONES HAS RETURNED.

One caveat, and a few fair warnings: I haven't watched the leaked episodes, so this is only accurate up through S5E2, The House of Black and White. This might all change on Sunday night! That won't change the fact that the conversation this week has been dumb af. It is an adaptation-specific choice, which means that I will be talking about the books a bit. I think I've successfully limited what I've mentioned to things that came up on-screen this week or have been seriously hyped in the press over the last couple of months. There's one point that is related to something show-only people don't know yet but it is in a footnote and in white text. I also talk about Lady Stoneheart, which I think has been thoroughly spoiled for everyone over the past ten months, but if somehow you've made a point to avoid knowing what that means you might want to skip.

Of course, I am more or less presumptively defensive of the show whenever it makes book purists cry their pedantic tears. I'm of the opinion that if people have a substantive criticism they should make it; if they don't, they should quit peeing on everyone's fun with snobbery about how they liked ASOIAF before it was cool and/or in ways that make them moral paragons. But the tantrum du jour is particularly contemptible, both because (a) the adaptational choice is an awesome one and (b) it strongly supports my suspicions about the disingenuousness of a favorite book purist hobby-horse.

In case you haven't read the books: Ellaria Sand in the books is strongly against continuation of the conflict at all, saying that making war on the Lannisters will not bring Oberyn back, so she's done. Oberyn's daughters, known as the Sand Snakes, are vehemently in favor of vengeance. While they do not threaten Myrcella (at least, they have not done so yet) they are in favor of marching on King's Landing and executing seven-year-old Tommen. They are covertly assisted by Prince Doran's heir, Princess Arianne, and her lover, kingsguard knight Arys Oakhart. In my opinion, the Dorne chapters of the book are not hurting for quality, and all of the characters mentioned here are well-drawn and charismatic.

But trimming of characters had to happen, right. Adding six new characters - Doran, Areo, Trystane, and three of the Sand Snakes - is probably pushing it this late in the game, but Dorne is entirely too good to pass up. Trimming Arianne and Arys (along with other expat Dornish characters I won't mention), as much as fandom groused, is tough to debate as the most serviceable choice. The script can centralize Ellaria, the character we know and like and who has the special status that gets her one-on-ones with Prince Doran, and keep the exciting crew of Sand Snakes. This ties the major Dornish players together and to the audience by their close personal connection to the late, lamented Prince Oberyn.

A good enough choice, but simple condensation, rather than inspiration. The movement of Ellaria into the Sand Snakes' camp? Inspired.

I know book readers don't like for new viewers to have nice things, but this is a sharp move for ease of viewer understanding. Readers had the luxury of getting a well-rounded picture of Dorne through three different POV characters: Areo the Doran loyalist, Arianne the Sand Snake ally, and Arys the outsider. Viewers are being dropped into a totally new setting with only one character we know. This means that what Ellaria says is going to have significantly more weight for the viewers than anyone except maybe Prince Doran. The scene featuring a conversation between Ellaria and Doran* is a sharp, concise introduction to this new place, one that doesn't overwhelm the viewer with a new setting AND a new culture AND a half a dozen new speaking characters to keep straight. Giving Doran and Ellaria opposing viewpoints is the best show-not-tell way to drop the reader into Dornish public opinion. Because Doran has made and enforced Dorne's isolationism, and because he wouldn't have to argue with anyone to mobilize the troops he can order over the marshes anytime, his opinion is already set, and Ellaria needs to oppose him. Moreover, having the character we know and respect give voice to Dornish public opinion, rather than oppose it, gives it the credibility needed by a new perspective which so strongly opposes the characters we've known for so long.

"But this eliminates the voice for peace!!" Again, show not tell. If someone can watch the game thus far and not understand that war is bad, having one more character say that war is bad isn't going to get the message across. That's not what really bothers me about this complaint, though. What bothers me is that it usually comes with this expectation that Good Wise Maternal Feminine Angel Book Ellaria was a superior character to the Ellaria of the show (and therefore, presumably, a far superior character to the Arianne people are so! outraged! over having lost). I really disagree. As much as I liked both Arianne and Ellaria in the books - and I did! - let's be honest, the beautiful spoiled young princess who is hotheaded and reckless and the woman a generation older who is the Good Wise Maternal Feminine Angel who mournfully denounces the folly of war were not among Martin's more innovative creations. This particular fusion results in a character who is far less common. While novelty isn't necessarily superiority, it's definitely a plus for me, especially at this point in the narrative where the show has to start differentiating itself from the books.

Moving away from archetypes, this fleshes out Ellaria herself in a way that makes a lot of sense. This woman is, after all, the beloved life partner of Oberyn Martell, who made Indingo Montoya look like an amateur. Is it really that hard to accept that they might have this in common, this shocking capacity for both love and rage? (It's posthumous credit to Showberyn, IMO, that he devoted himself to a woman who was so clearly his match and his equal, rather than someone he could outsource his conscience to and idealize.) Indeed, even the greater immorality in the threats she's willing to make - though threats are just that; she doesn't seem to have done or even said anything that might disturb the girl - make sense in this context. Oberyn had the better part of two decades after hearing about his sister's death to cool down his rage to the level of random stabbings. Ellaria has had, at most, a couple of weeks after actually seeing her beloved die in such a horrible fashion. I know this is crazy, but hear me out: sometimes freshly traumatized people are not 100% rational ethicists in their every word and desire?

This brings me around to the giant zombie elephant in the room. I think it's a mistake to say that Ellaria is taking the place of Arianne. I think she is poised to draw out the themes that the book explores through Lady Stoneheart. Like UnCat, Ellaria is a character who started out being framed as the mature voice of feminine-coded reason (Cat's ~reasoning was a lot more conditional and self-serving than fandom gives it credit for, but Ellaria's speech in ADWD does mirror Catelyn's in AGOT), and has become someone vengeful, bloodthirsty, willing to destroy even the innocent. In case you have missed it, people have been screaming bloody murder over the apparent exclusion of Lady Stoneheart from the show. Like with Arianne, I'm not saying this is good because the books are bad. I enjoyed LS a lot and would probably be thrilled if the show did find a way to work her storyline in, but I think that there are far more good reasons to get rid of it than to keep it. Fandom disagrees, however, and I've suspected that this was more bullshit than anything else, because a lot of the garment-rending has been about how! important! LS is to the plot, when she has actually not done anything of consequence to the main plot. She's part of a storyline which has been cut from the show because it drags hard, and her only action that does move things along (a) hasn't been played out yet so readers have no idea how important it is or isn't and (b) is something that could be done by any number of non-zombie characters even if the show were to try and stick with the books otherwise. But now this complaint feels even more hollow and pedantic, because we do have a somewhat similar character illustrating very similar themes, and not only are we unhappy about it, but we apparently haven't even noticed that the important stuff is there!

And - here is what's great about fantasy fiction - the important stuff doesn't so much include that one character is living and the other is not. I mean, it's kind of important, but IMO in ways that make Ellaria the far more interesting choice to play all of this out. Lady Stoneheart is dead, which means that she's an agent who acts on the principle that she has nothing left to lose. The reader knows that most of her children are alive at this point, if perhaps more homicidal and/or arboreal than one would prefer, but LS doesn't know that and it's unclear whether she would be able to adapt if she did find out. That's an interesting concept and one that I enjoyed reading about, but it is also an innately static one. Ellaria, being alive, has the capacity for a dynamic character arc, and she has a lot to lose. This is something that the episode alluded to quite deftly, when Doran told Ellaria that she made his brother happy and therefore has a place in his heart. Touching, sure, but also a very gentle threat: a place in his heart is not a place in his palace, or even his country. Ellaria never married Oberyn, so she is not entitled to a widow's inheritance. She....might be? the mother of some or all of the Sand Snakes, but they are young bastard women and so cannot necessarily support or protect her. She is a bastard herself, and therefore has nothing to fall back on. Ellaria takes a very real risk in challenging Doran the way she does. This creates stakes, and it tells us a lot about her methods and motivations. It tells us a lot about Doran, both in that he lets her bluster and in the way he warns her not to go too far. It is interesting.

But, of course, fandom wouldn't be fandom if it didn't miss fascinating nuances, and tumblr fandom wouldn't be tumblr fandom if it didn't try to seize and exploit the moral high ground. This I find genuinely frustrating rather than entertainingly deluded, for obvious reasons. The way both book and show handle Dorne is a complex issue which deserves good faith interrogation because of the real-world resonance of the ethnic othering of the Dornish. Conflating fidelity to the source material with Socially Just (TM) storytelling, however, is a giant mistake for a lot of reasons. For example, character condensation (PROBLEMATIC!!!!) had to happen if the Dornish were to get onto our screens at all, rather than simply going the way of the ironborn. And indeed, a lot of these conversations take on some worrisome connotations of their own. I cringe, you guys, I cringe hard when the lack of LS is cited as evidence that D&D HATE WOMEN!!!! Like, all the diverse and complicated women in this story, and a voiceless corpse is the make-or-break female character bellwether? And I bring this up because I really do think it's snobbish pedantry rather than Social Justice (TM) fail, but I admit I am a little weirded out by the fandom party lines on Lady Stoneheart and Show-Ellaria which, taken together, suggest that a 40+ white woman with a severed larynx will be permitted more moral latitude than a 40+ woman of color who can speak for herself. There's race and/or gender performance dynamics which I doubt are motivating this conversation, but kind of think should probably be considered more than they are. The real issue with media representation, the thing that I think most of us mean to talk about, is whether different kinds of characters are shown as subjects in their own right, complex and fleshed-out and human, and in that, the show is completely on track to be successful.

*OKAY HERE IS THE SPOILER HIGHLIGHT AT YOUR OWN RISK: Areo Hotah's presence is silent, but not extraneous: he is there to show that Doran isn't fucking around when it comes to defense and security, and to subtly hint that Doran's capacity for violence far outstrips his inclination to use it.

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game of thrones, asoiaf, losing friends & alienating people

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