Actually, Arya and Sansa’s confrontation on ‘Game of Thrones’ was brilliant, heartbreaking, and full of lessons on feminism. Allow me to womansplain.

Sansa-Arya 2

After witnessing the tense, heated conversation between Stark sisters Sansa and Arya on last night’s episode of Game of Thrones (“Beyond the Wall”), I had only one thought:

That was the best scene in the entire show.

Don’t worry, I’ve softened my opinion after a night’s sleep. After all, there are too many contenders to count for that title – Daenerys burning down the patriarchy in Vaes Dothrak, Brienne and Arya’s scrimmage swordfight, Cersei’s Walk of Shame, Tommen’s tragic and silent death, Jon Snow punching Ramsay Bolton in the face again, and again, and again… and many more. The standout scenes on this show are memorable for a variety of reasons: some are shocking, some are satisfying, some are tender – and some are all three. There have been blips, of course (what even is the pacing in this season? Is time an illusion in Westeros?), but the show has always represented a paradigm of masterful storytelling. Not for nothing has Game of Thrones shattered Emmy Awards records and become a worldwide phenomenon over the past few years.

Scene-stealing dragons are great, but Game of Thrones has always thrived because of its character studies. Here is a patriarchal, medieval world of monarchies and magic, common folk and religion. How far would a woman go to secure for herself the power that her male family members and husband are awarded at birth? With whom would a calculating eunuch be willing to align in order to ensure that the next ruler of this world does the most possible good? What would it take for a spurned son to betray his entire family while following his conscience? And is it true that the good guy always gets beheaded finishes last?

For all of its accolades, Game of Thrones has also gotten a lot of flak for its depiction of female characters. With the exception of Sansa’s rape providing character development for a male character, I am honestly baffled by most of the criticism. Yes, the world of Westeros is far from a feminist utopia, and the cultural and socio-political attitudes actually reflect back on our real world much more than we’d like to admit. But that is exactly what makes the characters so engaging; that’s what makes their struggles so potent. After all, the tension between the ideal and the real is what gives our lives and actions meaning.  

Until the end of last season, Cersei cared about nothing but power and her children. (Now: just power?) The fact that Cersei is cruel and psychotic and wants to rule the world – a villainous personality usually reserved for men – but is also maternal and wants only the best for her children – a typically female personality – makes her a radically feminist character. Brienne and Arya are similar characters separated by a generation, but both have to contend with the way their dreams of becoming knights clash with society’s expectations of their roles as noblewomen. They, too, are feminist characters.

Women contain multitudes, and Game of Thrones does a fabulous job exploring these multitudes. And in my opinion, there is no more fascinating and complicated female character than that of Sansa Stark.

In brief, because this is an essay for another time (one that I hope to get paid for… any editors reading this?), Sansa was always a great character specifically because she was so unlikable. This assessment is partially a personal preference in that she was not the type of girl I would ever want to be, or even be friends with. Growing up in Winterfell, Sansa was vain, selfish, whiny, and privileged. She was content with the status quo, ready to live her life in comfort and ease, more than willing to conform to patriarchal plans for her future. For many of these reasons, Sansa is an objectively unlikable character as well; from a narrative standpoint, she served as a foil to rebellious Arya, the cool underdog that fans loved and rooted for. Arya is resourceful, athletic, determined, fierce, clever. Sansa is… pretty. Of course, this does not make Sansa any less worthy of life. And people like her certainly exist in our world. But to 21st century humans with progressive attitudes towards gender, her attitude is understandably antiquated, and therefore less relatable.

Arya and Sansa’s shared last name – and their shared gender – does not necessitate that their characters would ever see eye-to-eye or suddenly share the same values.

In their years apart, Arya and Sansa endure an immense amount of suffering. Both witnessed the murders of their family, and both thought, for a long time, that each was the last remaining Stark. Arya responded by training to become an assassin, fulfilling her dream of becoming a warrior. Sansa lived through physical abuse at the hands of Joffrey, emotional abuse from Cersei, unspeakable torment from Ramsay (including the infamous and controversial rape), and through an extended series of circumstances, she is now closer than ever to the dream future she imagined, as the Lady of Winterfell.

Arya and Sansa have always been very, very different – complete opposites, even – so their reunion at Winterfell this season was unsurprisingly awkward. Naturally, each was happy to see the other alive. But their shared last name – and their shared gender – does not, in any way, necessitate that their characters would ever see eye-to-eye or suddenly share the same values and dreams of the future. In fact, it would be poor writing, and reflect a poor understanding of the human psyche, if they did.

So, now that we’re all on the same page, let’s talk about that scene in “Beyond the Wall.”

We learned in the previous episode, “Eastwatch,” that Littlefinger (*shakes fist*) is trying to play the Stark sisters against each other, so he ensured that Arya would find the letter to Robb that Sansa was coerced into writing back when she was a Lannister hostage. The letter contains Sansa’s entreaty for Robb to come to King’s Landing and swear fealty to King Joffrey, while also denouncing Stark patriarch Ned as a traitor. Naturally, Arya was none-too-pleased to learn that Sansa had, in Arya’s eyes, so willingly “betrayed” her family. Sansa tried to explain that she was just “a child” – terrified and naive – and that although she didn’t have a “knife at her throat,” as Arya blithely suggests, she was threatened all the same. Her explanation falls on deaf ears.

The way I understand it, viewers of Game of Thrones are angry because of Arya’s utter lack of empathy for her sister’s situation. But people seem to be conflating Arya’s lack of empathy for the male showrunners’ lack of empathy. If you think every character represents their creators, I have news for you: this is fiction. So, yes, I very much doubt that Dan Weiss and David Benioff are toasting cups of Dornish wine, crowing: “Ha ha! Sansa sucks because she got raped and also she is a weak, boring woman!”

In the context of the show, though, Arya’s coldness makes total narrative sense. Are we not supposed to understand, given the way Arya slaughtered pretty much the entirety of House Frey, that she is now utterly unhinged? That Arya, driven to this point by grief and anger and the freedom she’s always desired, has become a vengeful and rage-fueled monster? Though she made that pivotal choice to set off for Winterfell rather than continuing her single-minded murder crusade, she is still a very, very angry young woman. Indeed, Sansa picks up on this (gee, what gave it away?) and tries to rationalize Arya’s harsh judgement of her by telling Arya: “Sometimes anger makes people do unfortunate things.” After taunting Sansa for being afraid, Arya shoots right back at Sansa’s achilles heel: “Sometimes fear makes people do unfortunate things.”

Oof. Brutal.

The tension in this scene is so palpable because of what is said: Arya’s spiteful barbs demonstrate that she still views Sansa as a shallow airhead. Sansa’s responses, though delivered with startling calmness, show that she still views Arya as a little girl. But it is also brilliantly crafted to make us think of all that is not said. Sansa alludes to, but does not explicitly delineate, all of the horrific abuses she suffered at the hands of her various male counterparts (and, of course, Cersei). Even if Arya knew, though, I doubt she would be any more sympathetic. Arya’s rage – against everyone who specifically wronged her family, and against a society, represented by Sansa, that told her she couldn’t be the one thing she wanted to be – has fueled her for years. She is unmoved by fear and disgusted by weakness.

Sansa, meanwhile, is conventionally pretty, and she has always wanted conventional things. Arya believes that Sansa is “weak” because she doesn’t want to – as they say often on this show – “break the wheel,” and because she gave in to Lannister pressure when, let’s be honest, most of us would have done the same. But – and this is why I find her character so enlightening – her experience still matters. Her trauma still matters. It’s horrible, but Arya clearly thinks that Sansa doesn’t deserve to live because she’s not “strong” or “courageous” enough.  Arya views weakness as a moral failing.We know better.

There is a saying that’s been going around Tumblr for a while: “Are you brave? the devil asked. No, she answered, but I am alive. And sometimes those two things are the same.” This, I believe, represents Sansa to a tee – and it’s something I can relate to, as well. Sansa is no warrior. She is not particularly strong or cunning. She is not even particularly kind. But she is alive, she has suffered, and she is deserving of respect.

When Arya declares that “the rules were wrong,” she is effectively calling out the patriarchy: societal rules say that Arya cannot be a fighter because she is a girl. Arya stands here now, proof that the rules are wrong. From a culturally progressive perspective, Arya is right – the rules are wrong. But Arya own feminism is short-sighted – she believes that Sansa is worthy of scorn and derision simply because what Sansa wanted for her own life happened to align with what the patriarchal society wants for her. Arya’s resentment bleeds through into every word of their conversation, most notably when she describes seeing Sansa stand next to the Lannisters – “I remember the pretty dress you were wearing, I remember the fancy way you did your hair.”

And you know what? I used to resent Sansa for all that, too. But Sansa, who is not a mite-sized killing machine or a Three-Eyed Raven, has earned my grudging respect.

I’m seeing a lot of commentary on Twitter to the effect of: “THIS IS NOT HOW SISTERS WOULD ACT! MEN FAIL AT WRITING WOMEN!” And to be clear, I think it’s a huge problem that Game of Thrones has not employed a female writer or director since season four. In certain areas, the storytelling may have faltered because of that. (Plus, I obviously support any and all diversity initiatives regardless.) But this scene – this heartbreaking, gut-wrenching confrontation between Arya and Sansa, a focal point for discussions about gender, feminism, tragedy, and trauma –  is absolutely one of Game of Thrones’ strengths.


Part III – The Two Types of Time Travel Tales

Lost, Fringe, Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Flash, Harry Potter, Legends of Tomorrow, even Game of Thrones. Why do so many of the stories we love involve time travel?

Via xkcd

Method #1: The Closed Causal Loop.

Most time travel stories follow one of two tracks: the “closed causal loop” method and the “multiverse” method. In the causal loop story, the time traveler brings about the future that always was. (Though tidy at first glance, causal loop time travel falls prey to the “predestination paradox,” a conundrum pointing out that a loop, by definition, can have no beginning or end, making causal loop time travel seem logically incomprehensible. Yeah, my brain hurts too.)

The prime example of this iteration is Chris Marker’s 1962 short film La Jetée, which directly inspired 12 Monkeys (1995) and also serves as a genetic antecedent to James Cameron’s  The Terminator (1984). La Jetée, shot almost entirely in black-and-white photographs, features a man from post-apocalyptic Paris who travels back to a traumatic memory from his childhood and discovers that he was an integral part of that moment all along. (You can watch the entire 28-minute film on Hulu.) Causal loop stories can be viewed as distant descendants of the age-old trope of foreknowledge, which hearkens all the way back to Greek myths and prophecies in the Hebrew Bible.

Brad Pitt is a trip and a half in the original 12 Monkeys.

Marc Guggenheim, executive producer of the CW’s Legends of Tomorrow, invokes the myth of Oedipus to illustrate the key tension in causal loop time travel tales: “The lesson of Oedipus is, how do you know that having knowledge of the future and attempting to change the future isn’t the very thing that brings about the future you are trying to prevent?”

By treating events in time as immutable, causal loop time travel stories propose that fate reigns supreme. La Jetée and Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys apply this theory of time travel to tragic effect, while in Terminator, our heroes emerge triumphant.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban celebrates a happy ending through time travel engineering, as Harry and Hermione Granger use a time turner to save Buckbeak the Hippogriff from execution and then use Buckbeak to help Sirius Black escape from his cell.

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Unlike the time travel shenanigans that take place in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (which I will, ahem, discuss when we start looking into “alternate histories”), the logistics of time travel in this story are actually pretty airtight in terms of following the rules of the causal loop. Rather than “changing” the timeline, Harry and Hermione actually work to preserve it: The “unmistakable swish and thud of an ax” that they heard was a reaction of anger from the executioner at the escape of the hippogriff, not the performance of the execution itself, and the wailing they heard from Hagrid was an expression of joy, not grief. So, when Harry and Hermione “prevent” Buckbeak from being killed, they are really just preserving the closed loop of the original timeline.

Sirius had been captured when he, Harry and Hermione were surrounded by soul-sucking Dementors, landing Sirius in the aforementioned cell and Harry and Hermione in the Hospital Wing. But before Harry passed out, he saw what he thought was his (dead) father producing a fully-fledged Patronus to drive away the Dementors. Naturally, given the chance to revisit this scene as a time traveler from the near future, he seeks out this mysterious figure in order to see for himself. However, when his father neglects to appear, Harry suddenly realizes the truth: He hadn’t seen his father, he had seen himself.

Scholastic’s 15th Anniversary Edition cover for ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’

Armed with this foreknowledge, Harry is able to produce the extremely advanced Patronus charm, and so complete the timeline loop. As he explains to Hermione upon their return to the Hospital Wing, and to the present time: “I knew I could do it this time, because I’d already done it!”

In a way, this presents a reverse case of the Grandfather Paradox: Time Traveling Tim knows he cannot kill his grandfather in the past because he already didn’t, while Time Traveling Harry knows he can produce a fully corporeal Patronus because he already did.

As Harry explains to Hermione: “I knew I could do it this time, because I’d already done it!”

On the other hand, the causal loop method of time travel made a tragic appearance on Season Six of Game of Thrones within the episode “The Door.”

(Beware, the following is dark and full of spoilers.)

Hodor (Kristian Nairn) was originally known as Wylis, a stable boy in the service of House Stark who becomes a lovable bodyguard of sorts to the crippled Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright). Everyone calls him “Hodor” because that nonsense word is the only thing he has uttered since suffering from a seizure as a youth. But in “The Door,” Hodor’s true backstory is revealed.

Bran’s companion Meera (Ellie Kendrick) is desperately trying to escape with Bran and Hodor from the terrifying, zombified army of wights, but Hodor is his usually insensible self and Bran’s mind is ages away, locked in a vision of the past. In Bran’s vision, he is watching his father, Ned, say goodbye to his father, Rickard, as Hodor (then Wylis) stands by. But Bran hears Meera calling to him from the present, telling him to “warg” into Hodor so that he could puppeteer Hodor to carry them all to safety from the wights.

Yet Bran inadvertently wargs into the minds of both the Hodor of the present and the Wylis of the past, overwhelming Wylis’s mental faculties and causing him to collapse. Events play out in the present with Meera, Bran and Bran-controlled-Hodor darting out of their cave and Meera yelling to Bran-controlled-Hodor to “Hold the door!” as she carries Bran through. In the past, Bran’s presence has linked Wylis’s mind to his future self’s reality, causing him to hear and parrot Meera’s frantic “Hold the door!” which, said many times in quick succession, eventually morphs into: “Hodor!” As the loop is closed on Wylis/Hodor’s reality, his destiny is sealed; by dipping into the past, Bran cemented the future.

Regardless of the outcome, the condition of causal loop stories— that everything must play out as it already did, or will— seems troubling, removing human agency from the equation altogether and leading to a grim sort of fatalism.

Causal loop time travel stories propose that fate reigns supreme.

Which is why the 12 Monkeys television series has adopted a more flexible view of the intersection of time travel and fate. “In the film, you cannot change time,” Executive Producer Terry Matalas explains. “In the television show, you can. In that way, it can’t help but explore fate and hope in an exciting way. The ability to change your reality for the better through time travel is in itself a hopeful idea.”

However, not everyone views the notion of set-in-stone fate with despair. “I think that form of storytelling is really interesting too,” says Lost co-creator and writer Damon Lindelof. “There are certain inevitabilities that are fixed, either by some higher power or just by the biosystems of life. They are unalterable, and even in a world where time travel exists, you can’t change them. The fun of telling those stories is watching people try anyway.”

For Lindelof, having characters grapple with their place in the universe ultimately leads to a cathartic journey. “There’s a tragedy in that the initial mission was a failure, but along the way the character learns something that gives them a victory on a more intimate or personal level,” he says. “You start from a place of: I need more control, I need to control the people around me, I need to control my own destiny.

“But as life goes on you begin to learn that there are some things that you have no control over. You have to let go, and there is a certain freedom and evolution in accepting your own place in the world and the power that you have over it. So, even the failure can be transformed into a victory.”

“There are certain inevitabilities that are fixed, either by some higher power or just by the biosystems of life,” says Lindelof. “The fun of telling [causal loop] stories is watching people try anyway.”

This Zen-like acceptance of fate calls to mind the message of Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru trial (first depicted in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), designed to test the Starfleet cadet’s character by presenting a no-win scenario. Captain James T. Kirk infamously re-engineered the test in order to beat it, declaring that he doesn’t believe in no-win situations. Importantly, though, Kirk doesn’t necessarily beat the test; rather, he tweaks the conditions as a means of creating a different outcome more to this liking.

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Method #2: The Multiverse Theory.

This second time travel track, the “multiverse” or “many worlds” theory, suggests that when time traveling in a multiverse story, the time traveler creates an alternate timeline in an alternate reality based on the different choices she makes.  This theory has gained traction recently thanks to the expanding fields of multiverse physics and cosmology. It is also particularly appealing because it dodges the predestination paradox inherent in causal loop time travel without sacrificing free will.

The “multiverse” theory suggests that the time traveler creates an alternate timeline based on the different choices she makes.

In the 2009 Star Trek film, for example, a Romulan named Nero opens up a time portal to find Mr. Spock but ends up wreaking havoc and causing the death of Jim Kirk’s father. Rather than “re-writing” the timeline of the original Star Trek television series and wrangling with the accompanying paradoxes (not to mention the fan outcry), the film branches into an alternate universe and plays out the story of Captain Kirk with different initial conditions (specifically, Kirk growing up without a father).

Causal loop and multiverse stories approach the thorny problem of free will from opposing directions. In the former, our predetermined actions are out of our hands, while in the latter, our choices literalize worlds of possibility. Both, however, provide a framework with which to interrogate questions that have plagued humanity since the dawn of time itself: Are we like gods, creators and destroyers of worlds, or are we humble cogs in the larger machine of the cosmos? Time travel allows for an exploration of both.

Check back in next week for The Twilight Zone, The Flash and my very favorite Fringe episode. Or, you know, just hop in your time machine and read it now. If you choose that option, hit me up, I have some questions…