What's with all the staring on Game of Thrones?

Blink twice, Sansa, if you're mad at your sister

Sansa and Arya.
(Image credit: Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO)

"The Spoils of War" was riddled with interesting tensions over how titles and relationships map onto identity. Take Bronn. The guy who makes fun of Dickon for going to "Fancy Lad School" wants what Dickon has: a castle. The sellsword hungers for respectability; he'd like to be a lord. When Jaime reminds him of who he is, Bronn bridles and sarcastically calls Jaime "my lord" as he rides away. But it turns out noble blood doesn't get you very far either: When Arya, who's played so many other people, finally arrives home in her own face and announces herself as herself, it doesn't go as planned. (It's interesting, too, that for someone whose List of Names matters as much as hers does, the names she recites to the guards to establish her authenticity — Maester Luwin, Ser Rodrik — fail to work.) Only after she pieces together that her sister is in charge does she gain admission to her own home. Names and titles just aren't what they were.

There's a startling number of these kinds of conversations. The Iron Bank's Tycho makes a point of telling Cersei that he's "neither kind, nor a lord" in order to drive home that arithmetic trumps all, and Ser Davos' effort to endow Jon with a little grandeur backfires — is it King Snow? King Jon? "It doesn't matter," Jon says, and this seems to be the episode's point: that Sansa is "Lady Stark" now is both true and irrelevant. Bran repeatedly denies that he's Lord Stark (neither, for that matter, is he Bran). And when Podrick tries to compliment Brienne with a milady, she bursts out in annoyance: "I'm not a … never mind." And thanks him. Titles are squaring so oddly with identity that it's not even worth squabbling over them.

One reason for this seems to be norm erosion, coupled with an influx of outsiders who are decentering Westerosi thinking. Missandei is only academically curious about naming conventions; that Jon is a bastard doesn't matter to the people of Essos, and neither do inherited titles. Those are interesting signs of how the expectations of a King or Queen of the Seven Kingdoms have changed.

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Cinematically, the greatest indication of how confused everyone is right now is the sheer volume of blank looks. These have a funny effect: They invite the viewer to project meaning onto them like screens and supply emotions that aren't quite there. I don't want to overstate this point — there are plenty of deeply expressive moments in this episode, this being the best one:

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"200515","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"339","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"600"}}]](Screenshot/HBO/Game of Thrones)

But there were a lot of extremely hard-to-read expressions, too. A cursory glance at multiple forums demonstrates, for instance, that many, many people were confused by whatever Sansa's expression as she gazed down at Arya and Brienne was supposed to indicate. And hers was far from the only instance of ambiguous blankness in an episode that should have been filled with recognition.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"200516","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"339","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"600"}}]](Screenshot/HBO/Game of Thrones)

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"200525","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"337","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"600"}}]](Screenshot/HBO/Game of Thrones)

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So what does this mean? I wrote yesterday about how fluently this episode misdirects the viewer into thinking things happened (or are about to happen) that never quite did. For an episode that featured a massacre, it was oddly indefinite. Cersei's gold is fine, and the few characters at risk — Drogon, Jaime, Bronn — almost certainly survived. It seems to me that this cornucopia of blank faces invites the viewer to reach a (wrong or premature) conclusion in a similar way: It's very easy, for instance, to read the emotion you think makes most sense into Sansa, even if it's not actually there. I've seen people describe Sansa's expression as conveying variously that she's impressed with her sister, glad for her sister, angry with her sister, worried about her sister, jealous of her sister, jealous of Brienne, shocked by her sister, etc. That Sophie Turner's face is capable of generating that many conflicting explanations is interesting. Even more interesting is how long the camera lingered on it: As a viewer, you are being asked to reach some kind of conclusion about Sansa's feelings there, even if their content isn't clear.

Something similar happened during Jon's encounters with Daenerys. Plenty of people (I include myself) interpreted their conversation in the cave as tilting toward romance (so, for that matter, did the show's creators). But those readings are fascinatingly unsupported by the actual expressions on the actors' faces. Take a look:

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"200519","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"336","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"600"}}]](Screenshot/HBO/Game of Thrones)

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[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"200521","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"335","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"600"}}]](Screenshot/HBO/Game of Thrones)

I think I was inclined to read romance into that scene because of Ser Davos' subsequent ribbing. (There's some suggestive music, too.) But if you look at Jon and Dany during these talks, they seem more weary and concerned than flirtatious, so much so that I'm inclined to take Jon at his word when Davos teases him and he replies that "there's no time for that." He truly doesn't look sexually interested to me:

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"200527","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"336","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"600"}}]](Screenshot/HBO/Game of Thrones)

Now, to be fair, Jon often looks upsettingly blank and sad. But we've seen him look happy, and the only person he looks happy with (besides Ygritte) is Sansa. As for Daenerys, we've seen her smolder with the best of them, and that's not what I see when I carefully examine her expression in the cave scenes or on the beach:

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"200522","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"338","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"600"}}]](Screenshot/HBO/Game of Thrones)

I mean, compare that to how she looked at Missandei when they were chatting about the "many things" Grey Worm did:

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"200523","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"338","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"600"}}]] (Screenshot/HBO/Game of Thrones)

When she looks at Jon, her gaze is engaged and interested but it isn't sensual or even romantic. That doesn't mean romance can't develop; it just means that the acting in this episode is intriguingly at odds with the requirements of the plot. It seems obvious at this point that Jon and Daenerys need to pair up, but "The Spoils of War" only supplied a structure that a reasonable person could read romance into; it didn't go the extra mile and give us the romance itself.

What "Spoils" provided, then, was a set of familiar frames that it refused to fulfill. We know what's supposed to happen when you see this shot:

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"200528","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"335","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"600"}}]](Screenshot/HBO/Game of Thrones)

Followed by this one:

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"200529","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"315","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"600"}}]](Screenshot/HBO/Game of Thrones)

Just as we know what's supposed to happen when you put a king and queen in a cave. The arrow will hit the dragon in the mouth. The king and queen will melt into each other's eyes. The siblings will reunite and it will be moving. That the expected thing didn't quite happen might be the point; we want it to so much that we feel as if it did.

The point is this: At this late stage in Game of Thrones, names matter little and titles mean less. The containers fail to reflect the contents. I suspect, therefore, that all those inscrutable looks will have a lot more to tell us than the explanations we've projected onto them.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"200530","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"336","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"600"}}]](Screenshot/HBO/Game of Thrones)

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