OVER*FLOW: Dynasty, Reproduction, Coalition: Why the Game of Thrones Finale Was Queerly Satisfying
Alexander Cho / UC Irvine


Drogon torches the throne
Drogon torches the throne.

A lot of folks are upset with the final season, and the final episode, of Game of Thrones. I don’t blame them. Characters’ essences seemed to veer at right angles, a lot of loose threads weren’t tied up, and Arya is all set to be Westeros’s very own Christopher Columbus.

However, some of the online vitriol has made me wonder if we have been watching the same show. As Kristen Warner points out, thinking through gendered modes of reception is vital to unpacking this show and its fandom. Here, I offer a take: the show (and its source text, but more on that later), has always been fundamentally queer. And the finale was oddly, queerly, satisfying.

From day one in Game of Thrones, anyone who tried to assert power in the traditional masculinist patriarchal manner—war, birthright, honor, chivalry, overpowering your enemy by force—simply died, was a shit ruler, clueless to soft power, or all of the above. Because patriarchy is a violent, closed system and heteronormativity specializes in its reproduction, from day one it was always the queers/disabled/kids/social outcasts (read: those who can’t rely on the system to ratify their genital agency) in Westeros who have known what’s up. They have rarely if ever been invited to the table, they have to move in the wings in order to get what they need, and as such they have a clearer sense of power and injustice, unclouded by masculine ego and dickly posturing (Varys, anyone?). They’re better at the game precisely because they have never known the dull safety of state-sponsored patriarchy. This is a powerful social critique that is embedded in George R.R. Martin’s text. It resonates with the late media scholar Alexander Doty’s famous argument in his book, Making Things Perfectly Queer: it is not enough to “read” some media “queerly”; in fact, shows such as Designing Women or Laverne & Shirley are literally queer, in their politics of relation, their eschewing of norms, their baked-in values.

What viewers may have missed in their rightful rage against this season’s clumsy plotting and its especially poor exposition of Dany’s sudden, so-called “descent” was the subtext hidden in the ostensible way forward in Westeros—specifically, the makeup of those who wind up on Bran’s Small Council as the series ends. If Dany wanted to “break the wheel,” she did so inadvertently, and via her death, for she would never have picked this strange assortment herself. But their specific selection is anything but random. The Small Council is really where ruling power resides in Westeros, though this may be emphasized in the novels more than the show, and thus easier to miss. This is the sly redemption built in to the finale, and begins to make sense if we consider the figures specifically:

  • Brienne, a gender outlaw whose influential father unsuccessfully tried to betroth her to proper suitors many times, and who describes herself in the novels as “The only child the gods let [my father] keep. The freakish one, one not fit to be son or daughter”
  • Sam, ruthlessly disowned by his influential family for being a gender outlaw (guess what happened to his normative brother—whose name is Dickon—and dad)
  • Bronn, not only a former working class commoner, but an especially despicable one who did the dirty work of the powerful (a mercenary), and who is unconcerned with reproduction, honor, and lineage in favor of sex work
  • Davos, not only a former working-class commoner, but an especially despicable one who did the dirty work of the powerful (a smuggler), whose son was killed
  • Tyrion, who begs a whole slew of analyses, and has always been positioned as an outcast with an unusual perspective due to his stature and his toxic relationship to his golden, gorgeous family
  • Even Podrick makes an appearance, a lowly, lumpy squire who apparently upends all expectations of virility, leaving normative bro-types utterly perplexed
  • And then Bran, perhaps the queerest of them all, if we mean “queer” as in not invested in any “normal” regimes of bodily comportment, diversion, sex, or even temporality (!)

The show’s final Small Council
The show’s final Small Council.

All of these folks would have been laughed out of the room (and most were) because they didn’t “belong” there, or ever fit the mold of who could be in charge—think the Lannister council or even Ned’s. And now they’re the ones repairing Westeros. The show has offered us a vision of queer coalition politics that we are too busy raging about Dany to see.

So where does this leave our heroine? Unfortunately, by series’ end (but really all the way throughout) Dany falls into the former category, of slash and burn, of womb and birthright—whenever she’s in a pinch, she torches everyone in sight. As one friend of mine said, incredulous at the Daenerys fan outpour: she basically turned out to be a fascist. If this thesis holds, are we really that surprised with what happened to her? You can’t dismantle the master’s house with his tools; the show may be reminding us, as decades of queer and feminist scholars such as Lorde have, that even heroic (white) women can be agents of patriarchy. Instead, by series end, we have the disabled, the disowned, genderqueer, working class, the “criminals,” and the geeks running the (six) kingdoms. To boot, we have a wise and practical Sansa, wanting nothing to do with the cursed chair, hardened by her own experiences with patriarchal trauma, ruling her own independent nation (historically the bro-iest of them all) without killing scores of her own people, OK, thank you.

Daenerys, dragon mom
Daenerys, dragon mom.

Even the notion of the “wheel” that needs to be broken has a famous antecedent in queer theory. The queer and feminist scholar Gayle Rubin’s concept of the “charmed circle” resonates here: the idea that a certain, narrow constellation of gendered sexual practices lines up nicely inside what any given social moment deems acceptable, while those outside it—non-reproductive sex, swapped sexual power roles, sex with unsanctioned organs and orifices—are anathema to our social order. Could this be the true subtext of the broken wheel?

On the subject of organs, what seemed like a Sansa non sequitur about Bran’s kingly impotence during the final episode’s makeshift continental referendum is actually crucially important to this narrative: he’ll never be able to dick his way into prolonging his power through the tried, true, and horrible mechanisms of patriarchal dynastic tyranny via favored progeny. “Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell—they’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s on top, and on and on it spins,” as Dany laments early on, can be read in this way at show’s end—not simply as an eye-roll at the same old rotating cast of characters, but also as an indictment of something so taken-for-granted as the assumptive security-via-futurity of reproduction and lineage, in an echo of Lee Edelman’s provocative thesis. In a way, this is also what Cersei wrestled with throughout her arc, painfully straining against the system to recraft her womb as phallus over and over again in search of agency, ultimately leaving herself bereft, glum, and childless.

All along, there has been a problem of race in Game of Thrones, and admittedly, the final Small Council’s composition doesn’t address this foundational aspect of intersectional coalition head-on, in favor of other axes. But they didn’t have much to work with on this front, and that is one of the show’s (and novels’) persistent failings. Dorne, in the novels, is the only racially diverse part of Westeros, with its own problematic colorist hierarchy, but that barely registered on the show, to the disappointment of many. (In fact, Dorne is given several significant storylines in the novels that have been condensed or completely erased in the show.) Though it is a fantasy, and on another planet, Martin’s world-building has always mapped uncomfortably onto Euro-medieval conceptions of “race” and geography: most of Westeros is England/Scotland, complete with “first men” and ensuing Roman and Norman conquests; swarthy Dorne could be Spain; fallen Valyria is a call-out to ancient Rome. And then there’s the land of “Yi Ti” to the East, across the “Jade Sea” with its inhabitants who sport rat-tail hair queues, and the jet-black skin of the people of the “Summer Isles,” to the tropical South. In light of all this, who can blame Grey Worm and the Unsullied for wanting to get the eff out of Dodge at the end?

But what I find more interesting is the possibility that Martin, knowing how it would turn out, may have been clucking to himself while we all uncomfortably cringed during Season 3’s “Mhysa,” with its incredibly bad optics of throngs of enslaved people of color holding up an alabaster foreigner as their savior, which we went along with anyway because we wanted to. D’oh! Maybe Martin tricked us into this misplacement—pinning our hopes on one woman is never the answer, and the mere fact that we thought a “hero” who needed to win a “throne” to right wrongs would even be one person at all reveals our deep-set conditioning to gaze in the patriarchal mode, especially if that patriarchal hero is platinum blonde, gorgeous, and female. Maybe heroically violent white women conquerors are simply a prettier iteration of racialized patriarchy.

Unfortunately, Dany, by series end, fails to realize to herself that she is the last spoke holding the wheel together. The throne room scene is telling (not because Drogon apparently understands symbolism), but because a delusional Dany tries to clutch at the cogs of the machine she had wanted to destroy, lusting at the possibility of security in the progression of almighty family alongside Jon in a new (old) dynasty for a new (old) era. The actress Emilia Clarke purposely played it this way. In regards to her final scene, she told the New Yorker, “I wanted to play a game with what the scene was about. It’s not that I wanted to show her as ‘mad,’ because I really don’t like that word. I don’t enjoy fans calling me ‘the Mad Queen.’ But she is so far gone in grief, in trauma, and in pain. And yet our brains are fascinating in the way that they find a fast route to feel O.K., whether you’re relying on a substance or you’re mildly deluded.” For a blip, we kind of wanted it too; that’s the way these stories are supposed to go.

There is a radical point gurgling under the surface here, for those interested in the potential of progressive, intersectional politics: it turns out that a power-hungry entitled woman may not be our feminist savior after all, and in fact may end up reproducing the very politics she wanted to dismantle. Maybe truly breaking the wheel—and an exercise in intersectional queer world-building—looks more like a motley bunch of social outcasts, gender misfits, and former “criminals” at the council table doing the boring but important work of rethinking old-boy givens (State-funded brothels? Haha, no. Feeding the poor? Yes) instead of flying in on dragons or slaying kings.

Image Credits:
1. Drogon torches the throne.
2. The show’s final Small Council.
3. Daenerys, dragon mom.




OVER*FLOW: The Oscar’s Slow Lurch Toward Relevance and Diversity
Shawna Kidman / University of California San Diego

Oscars TV Ratings Woes

Some have argued that a big Best Picture winner brings big ratings, but it’s hardly an exact science. What’s clear is that the audience is in serious decline. Final numbers for the 2019 telecast came in at 29.6 million viewers.

The Academy of Motion Pictures was on a mission to save the Oscars this year. First up was the awards’ well-established popularity problem. Ratings for the telecast were at an all-time low in 2018, with only 26.5 million viewers, down dramatically from 43.7 million just a few years earlier. But numbers weren’t the only issue; the Academy is increasingly perceived as being deeply out of touch with the moviegoing public. Nominees tend to be small films (low in budget, low in box office take) that few Americans have seen, or sometimes, even head of. The Academy has been trying to solve this problem since at least 2008, when they expanded the Best Picture category from 5 to 10 films; Dark Knight Returns had failed to receive a nomination, and seemingly as a result, the ratings took a hit. This year, looking to further expand the range of films recognized, the Academy leadership floated the idea of a whole new category for best “popular” film. Like their other ill-conceived announcements, including pushing cinematography and editing awards into commercial breaks, the proposal was basically dead on arrival with exasperated Academy members. Also of concern for the last several years has been the Oscars’ considerable diversity problem. In response to #OscarsSoWhite campaigns in both 2015 and 2016 (when not a single non-white actor or actress was nominated) and steady criticism for its tendency to snub films made by or about people of color, the Academy invited nearly 1000 new members this year. The explicit goal was to open its doors to more diverse voters.

At first, these efforts seemed to be paying off. The list of nominees included some very popular films—Bohemian Rapshody, A Star is Born, and Black Panther—as well as some very diverse films, including BlacKkKlansman, If Beale Street Could Talk, and again, Black Panther. And in the end, ratings went up, by 12%. But it remained the second-worst rated Oscars ever, and the Best Picture win went to Green Book, a film criticized for being a simplistic racial reconciliation tale. A throwback to prior disheartening winners (e.g. Crash or Driving Miss Daisy), the movie reminded everyone that the Oscars’ hoped-for-changes, if they come at all, are likely to materialize very slowly. There’s also the not-so-small fact that the Academy can only give Oscars to films that actually get made (and have enough support from their distributors to receive massive awards-season marketing campaigns).

Chadwick Boseman seems to speak for the whole room when he reacts to Green Book’s win for Best Picture. Meanwhile, and not caught on camera, Spike Lee tries to storm out the back of the theater.

For this reason, Black Panther stands out to me as a particularly intriguing Oscar contender. As an incredibly popular and genuinely diverse film, it was everything the Academy wanted and needed this year. But back in early 2016, when Disney, Marvel Studios, and producer Kevin Feige hired Ryan Coogler to direct the film, they likely weren’t thinking of racking up Oscars. They had plenty of other reasons to greenlight the project though, which had been in and out of development since the mid-1990s. Marvel was facing condemnation for, among other things, its failure to build a superhero film around anyone other than a white male; around the same time, DC responded to similar criticisms by finally prioritizing Wonder Woman, which also proved very successful both critically and financially.[ ((There are volumes of blog posts, comment sections, and online articles from 2014 and 2015 (and also before and after that window) that make these critiques as well as track Marvel and DC’s responses to them. See, for example, Jeet Heer, “Superhero Comics Have a Race Problem. Can Ta-Nehisi Coates Fix it?” The New Republic, Sept 22 2015 and Monika Bartyzel, “White Spider-Man and Marvel’s Diversity Deflection,” Forbes, Jun 23 2015. Marvel announced Chadwick Boseman’s attachment to the role in Oct 2014 and Ryan Coogler’s involvement in Jan 2016.))] As Marvel tells it then (or at least as their PR machine claims), this was a relatively easy decision on the part of producers. What’s more interesting and perhaps surprising, then, is the fact that the young and extremely talented Ryan Coogler agreed to sign onto the film. Ava DuVernay had already turned down the job (she decided instead to make A Wrinkle in Time, also for Disney). And Coogler, whose debut Fruitvale Station became a Sundance darling, and whose critically acclaimed Creed had just passed the $100 million mark, had an enviable position in Hollywood and the power to pick his next project.

He chose Black Panther, a franchise film with blockbuster potential. Although tellingly, he did not approach it like a typical comic book film. Coogler selected a mostly African and African-American cast and a diverse creative production team with experience from the indie world. It included two women of color, Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler, who ultimately won Best Costume Design and Best Production Design in two of Oscar night’s most gratifying moments. As far as the film’s creative process, when Coogler describes its conception, it’s almost always in terms of his cultural identity, his background in Oakland, and his ancestral roots in Africa. Although we can assume he researched old comics before writing the film, in interviews, he always chooses instead to point to his more significant preparation, an exploratory trip to Sub-Saharan Africa, which helped him better understand the region’s traditions, landscapes, and struggles. In the end, he made a political film, with a progressive message about colonialism and about black life in the U.S. and abroad. Of course, as a comic book movie, Black Panther is also action-packed, visually dazzling, and brimming with witty one-liners.

The first woman of color to win for Best Production Design, Hannah Beachler thanks other members of the crew (including Ruth E. Carter and Rachel Morrison), director Ryan Coogler, and producers at Marvel, with Kevin Feige (but not Coogler) featured in a cutaway. She ends on a heartwarming note: “I did my best and my best is good enough.”

In the past, we may have expected to see a creative team like Coogler’s—filmmakers with a distinct vision and clear message—assemble around a movie in a more traditionally respectable genre (perhaps a literary adaptation or a war film), or in other words, conventional Oscar-bait. But if they had, nobody (at least outside of LA or NY) would have seen their vision or heard its message. The serious-minded mid-range films of the past, movies like Dances With Wolves (1990) and Silence of the Lambs (1991), that won both awards and audiences, have largely disappeared; they’ve become the exception instead of the rule. The studios gradually turned instead toward tentpoles. And then, beginning in the early 2000s, they doubled-down on the strategy, building up on private equity-funded slate financing, transmedia storytelling, and IP-based franchises. Comic book films moved to the center of a new multimedia mode of production in Hollywood and they remain there today.[ ((Jay Epstein, Thomas Schatz, and Harold Vogel all discuss facets of this structural transition. See Jay Epstein, The Hollywood Economist (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2012); Thomas Schatz, “The Studio System and Conglomerate Hollywood,” in The Contemporary Hollywood Film Industry, ed. Paul Mcdonald and Janet Wasko (Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 13-42; and Harold Vogel, Entertainment Industry Economics (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015). I also discuss this transformation, and the rise of comic book films, in my forthcoming book, Comic Books Incorporated (Oakland: UC Press, 2019).))] Meanwhile, the awards shows have been left to lower-budget “indie” films, a space that’s been relatively easy for companies like Netflix and Amazon to break into (despite an ever-evasive Best Picture win). But if a filmmaker is interested in reaching big audiences and big buzz, Netflix cannot get them there. Comic books and franchises are the only way to access the masses, largely because they’re the only products Hollywood studios will put the full weight of their considerable machinery behind. That Black Panther was the very first comic book film nominated for Best Picture shows how out of touch the Academy is, not only with the American public, but with Hollywood itself, which, as an ecosystem, has come to depend on the lifeblood of superheroes.

In the future, we’re likely to see more comic book movies on Oscar night. But this won’t be because the Academy itself is transforming (even if it does, ever so slowly, lurch toward the future). It will be because more gifted and capable filmmakers like Ryan Coogler and Patty Jenkins will choose audiences over awards, bringing their significant talents to big IP-based franchises—movies too big for the Academy to ignore. It’s a little ironic actually. Despite its blockbuster status, Black Panther was Coogler’s first significant showing at the Oscars; both Fruitvale and Creed were overlooked, with only the latter receiving a nomination, for the performance of Sylvester Stallone. I wonder how much that 2016 snub impacted Coogler’s decision not to chase a traditional awards film as his next project. It’s yet another reminder that if the Academy fails to fully transform and recognize diverse talent, it will make itself and the kinds of films it has historically supported even more irrelevant.

Image Credits:
1. The Hollywood Reporter on Oscars’ Declining Ratings
2. Twitter Reacts to Chadwick Boseman Reacting
3. Hannah Beachler’s Lovely Acceptance Speech on ABC