Tower of the Hand

I Know Who I Am: Selfhood and Slavery in GOT

Jun 25, 2014, 10:00 AM ET
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What is the self? Yeah, yeah - kind of a broad question, I know, and one probably more at home in an undergraduate philosophy class than at Tower of the Hand, but I think it's a question that the writers and showrunners of Game of Thrones's fourth season are rather interested in exploring.

Selfhood encompasses a bunch of things, from a person's subjective perception of the world, to their stored-up memories and experiences, to the way they identity themselves within a society. Thus, selfhood plays a pretty big role in HBO's Game of Thrones (and, presumably, the books they're based on, but who has the time to read these days?), with characters' motivations persistently shaped by interpretations of past events (e.g., Robert's Rebellion vs. the War of the Usurper), or their status within the multitude of institutions which bind up Westerosi society (the five royal claimants, the hundreds of noble houses, the four major religions). One of the perpetual dilemmas throughout the series (for characters and viewers) is figuring out what to believe in: who to kneel to, who to pray to, and whether blood is thicker than oaths.

I don't think there's a character that embodies this dilemma more poignantly and more tragically than Theon Greyjoy. Since season two, we have watched this messed-up kid wrestle with his conflicting loyalties to the Starks (his adopted family) and the Greyjoys (his biological family); he pines for the acceptance of both and is continually rejected. Theon's understanding of his place in this world is highly volatile, and his decision to capture the castle of Winterfell can be viewed as a twisted attempt to etch out an identity of his own, forcing his father Balon (and the Starks) to recognise his agency. After convincing himself that turning against his half-brother Robb was a necessity, that he was being forced by some invisible chain of paternal loyalty, Theon did things (and ordered things done) that his conscience would otherwise never have permitted (e.g., the burning of the orphan boys).

The sad irony is that, in trying to assert an identity of his own, he compromised personal morality and was once again scorned by both of the families he longed to impress, with Robb ordering his execution and his sister Yara leaving him to the mercies of the northmen. Theon's crimes are beyond forgiveness (especially the viewers'), but as season three rolled on, it was difficult not to harbor some semblance of sympathy, as we watched this once-proud youth physically and psychologically tortured to within an inch of his sanity, systematically stripped of all aspects of his former self - his independence, his memories, his sexuality, and, eventually, his own name - before being reassembled as Reek, a snivelling slave, utterly subservient and dependent upon his tormentor, Ramsay Snow.

theonclings.jpgTheon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) clings to the bars of his cell as his sister Yara attempts to rescue him.

In the scene where Yara storms the Dreadfort to rescue her brother, we learn that all traces of Theon Greyjoy have now disappeared. As she tries to drag him from his cell (a dog cage, emphasising his inhumanity), Theon kicks and screams, declaring that "I'm Reek, I've always been Reek," and, most heart-breaking of all, "I know who I am!" Beyond the obvious ramifications of disobeying Ramsay, Theon's lines convey how desperately he wants to know himself and to know where he belongs. Two seasons prior, Yara had made a similar attempt to save him from a grim fate, but he refused the offer, informing her that he was the "Prince of Winterfell" now. In season four, she tries once again to bring him home, but now her brother is claiming to be Reek of the Dreadfort. One wonders if the only person who can save Theon at this point is himself, and that, through the act of choice, he might finally regain some sense of agency. Perhaps Theon's ultimate triumph will be reaching Yara by his own volition.

The declaration Theon makes in the Dreadfort kennels echoes a discussion at the beginning of episode four ("Oathkeeper"), in which Grey Worm and Missandei are trying to recall a time prior to their enslavement. Missandei remembers the day she was taken away from her home and family by strangers (an image beautifully mirrored at the end of the episode, when a squalling infant is snatched up by a White Walker and delivered north for its "transformation"). However, Grey Worm insists that he has always been an Unsullied soldier, and "before Unsullied, [there was] nothing." This "nothing" he refers to is the part of Theon and Grey Worm that wasn't bound in psychical and psychological chains, that wasn't told what to do and who to be - the voice inside them formed of their own free will. That voice has been systematically silenced by the powers that be, transforming the self into its exact opposite: the slave.

Slavery is one of the central themes (if I may use eighth grade terminology) of this season; not just the economy of slavery which Queen Daenerys is attempting to bring down, but the idea of a character's selfhood being extracted, and their physiology and psychology reappropriated in service to another. Apart from the enslavement of Theon by Ramsay, this is also evident in Joffrey's demented hold over Sansa, the Hound's commodification of Arya, and the assertion Tyrion levels at Shae, that she was only ever a whore in his eyes (a place for him to lay his lust, shirked and discarded at his discretion).

The question is: how does one come back from this state of detachment? Like Theon, the Stark girls have been stripped of everything that once made them Arya and Sansa - their families, their homes, even their own names. After watching their father, Ned, die on the galleys of King's Landing, they have been continually tormented by one agent or another (be it Joffrey or the Mountain's Men), have gained knowledge of the destruction of their home and the brutal slayings of their brothers and mother. While their trauma may pale compared to what occurs in the Dreadfort, their experiences have changed who they are on the inside in some pretty intense ways. Sansa's transformation is perhaps best exemplified in episode eight ("The Mountain and the Viper"), in which, having assumed the role of Littlefinger's niece, Alayne Stone, she once again plays the part of "Sansa Stark" in order to curry sympathy with the suspicious lords of the Vale. What I mean by this is that, by putting on this mask of innocence and meek courtesy (and then removing it in the following scene when Littlefinger calls her out on her deception), we come to understand just how far removed season-one-Sansa is from season-four-Sansa. Her reasoning in backing Littlefinger is that she "knows [him]," or, at least, she knows what he wants - her. She recognises that he's a snake, but she has spent the last few years of her life enduring the viper's nest of King's Landing, and has learned a thing or two about charm.

It is certainly a darker Sansa, a more manipulative Sansa, a Sansa more in tune with the corruption of the world and the power of her own sexuality. The final shot we see of her is a slow descent down the steps of the Eyrie, in which she is clad in a dark gown and has black-dyed hair - her transformation into Alayne now fully realized. One wonders how much of Sansa still remains within. She has so often been forced into playing a role, a level of sustained deception which must surely take its toll on the psyche. Perhaps the last time we saw the real Sansa Stark was when she was building that snow castle in the garden of the Eyrie, which now lies as ruined and abandoned as the smoking shell of Winterfell itself.

sansasews.jpgSansa Stark (Sophie Turner) sews Alayne's new dress.

Arya's transformation is even more dramatic, with the young nobleman's daughter being reduced to the level of a peasant girl in season two, to be spat upon and threatened with rape within the walls of Harrenhal. However, during season four, Arya continues to nourish a sense of Stark identity in the form of Needle, the sword her half-brother Jon Snow gifted her on the day she departed Winterfell. Arya recovers Needle at the end of the season premiere ("Two Swords"), a firm avowal that she is no longer the same frightened little girl who occupied Harrenhal. It is a nice reflection of the episode's opening scene, in which Ice, the Stark ancestral blade, is melted down by Tywin Lannister, signifying the complete and utter annihilation of their house. However, by deciding to reclaim Needle from the Lannisters, Arya contends that her Stark identity is not bound simply to castles and banners and armies, but that it is part of who she is, and that as long as she remembers her family, "Arya Stark" will continue to exist. Unfortunately, things get progressively worse for Arya and her captor as the season unfolds, with the initial object of their journey (her aunt Lysa) suddenly dying shortly before their arrival. Home was what kept Arya going. It kept her hope alive, along with the thought of seeing Jon again. Without it, how much longer will she be able to hang on to her old self?

With her campaign to free the slaves of Slaver's Bay, Queen Daenerys might be viewed as the most vigorous defender of selfhood and individual freedom of any character in the series. Declaring herself the "breaker of chains," she commences her siege of Meereen by catapulting not rocks, but barrels of discarded slave collars over the city walls. It is a powerful message, and it proves effective in motivating the slaves of Meereen to revolt against their masters, while allowing Dany to take the city without losing a single soldier. Moreover, it helps place choice back into the hands of the slaves, giving them the chance to exercise free will and throw off the physical and psychological shackles of their oppressive existence.

Nevertheless, one can't help but ponder the earnestness of Dany's revolution, given that it also affords her the favorable side-effect of total political and economic domination of Meereen, along with access to all of its wealth and resources should she decide to abandon it to the same fates as Astapor and Yunkai before sailing across the narrow sea to claim her ultimate prize. This sinister possibility is foreshadowed in episode four ("Oathkeeper"), and contrasts the earlier scenes of optimism articulated by Grey Worm and Missandei with the image of a hundred screaming slave-masters being nailed to crosses (not dissimilar to the cross that gave birth to Reek in season three); this is followed by an ambivalent shot of the Mother of Dragons surveying her most recent acquisition, exultant atop a pyr amid, with the Targaryen flag smothering the city's sacred harpy statue in the background. There is something a little fascistic (or, at least, colonial) about the scene, and as the season unfolds, Dany's persistent claims that she has "liberated" Meereen become less and less convincing. We see very little evidence of her reforms, beyond the fact that citizens now have to grovel at the foot of her throne instead of the Wise Masters' (whom she messianically "liberated" from their bowels).

slavecontemplates.jpgA Meereenese slave contemplates Queen Daenerys' (Emelia Clarke) message of liberation.

Okay, okay - maybe I'm laying it on a bit thick. Ruling is hard. But my point is Dany's attempts to undo thousands of years of systematic slavery seem (at this point) more symbolic than practical. Arguably, she still regards her Unsullied legions as the same faceless, nameless, mindless mob of automatons that helped her sack Astapor. Sure, she subsequently released them from slavery, declaring that they could depart her army if they so wished, but not one of them actually did. They are still Unsullied, obedient to the one who purchased them, as they were conditioned every day of their lives up until that point to be. Regardless of whether she holds a physical whip or not, Daenerys is still their master for all intents and purposes, and while she may tell herself that they are free to pursue lives of independence at any time, their unflinching obedience suits her just fine. She responds with vague amusement when she learns Grey Worm was watching Missandei as she bathed. "He can't possibly desire you," Dany insists, "he doesn't possess the necessary... hardware"; this once again serves to diminish slaves down to their objectivity (rather than their subjectivity).

Now, don't get me wrong - I think Dany is essentially a good person, with righteous ideals and an objective worth fighting for, but she is also a teenager (okay, maybe a young adult in the show) with a very black-and-white view of the world. I applaud the writers of this season for confronting her with some of the moral greyness so glaringly absent from season three's crowd-surfing, white-saviour jamboree.

Anyway, the question remains: how do people so transformed by trauma and abuse retain or regain a sense of selfhood? As characters like Theon, Sansa, and Arya are consumed more and more by the masks they wear to survive, the possibility of redemption seems to fade along with them. I guess all we can hope for is that they have locked some small part of themselves deep within, kept safe and hidden from the brutality of their environments - some tiny part of one's family, one's home, oneself, which Grey Worm calls the "nothing," but is actually the "everything."

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