We’re delivering our Game of Thrones recaps in a series we call Game of Thrones Unlocked. These articles will contain spoilers through the episode under discussion. This week, Ben Adams tackles “Eastwatch” (Season 7, Episode 5).
OK, guys, it’s time for some Game of Thrones Theory.
The most important line in Game of Thrones Season 1 was ultimately Cersei’s fateful words to Ned Stark: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” In the fifty-eight episodes since then, we have seen every possible variation of this game. And under normal circumstances, Cersei’s line has some bit of truth to it: There’s only so much Westeros to go around, and so the more of it that I control, the less that you control. And Westeros being Westeros, I’m probably going to kill you to make sure that I control even more and you control even less.
But “Eastwatch” tells us that the game has changed. With the Night King coming, the game of thrones is no longer zero-sum: you can win the game of thrones and die. So we better get everybody rowing (Hi, Gendry!) in the same direction. Ultimately, this episode is about all the different ways to get people to cooperate towards a common goal—and all the ways that can go wrong.
Beheading is Discouraged at the Teamwork Retreat
We open with the aftermath of last week’s battle, and Daenerys is making an offer that we could charitably describe as “tough but fair:” submit or die. And the Tarlys, stubborn lot that they are, elect option B.
In a weird way, Dany is living up to Ned Stark’s motto about “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” As she says to Jon later, her dragons are not so much her beasts of burden as they are her children. So when she says “dracarys” she is every bit as intimately connected with the death of the Tarly boys as Ned was with that poor Night’s Watch deserter all the way back in Episode 1. And it works, after a fashion: The whole “burning people alive” thing really makes the last few Lannister/Tarly stragglers #ReadyForDany.
But as the rest of the episode shows us, getting cooperation is almost never as simple as “submit or die.”
Jaime returns almost immediately to King’s Landing to tell Cersei just how much trouble they are in: not just three dragons, but an army of Dothraki that would probably be unstoppable all on their own. “Submit or die” should cause Cersei to surrender, right?
Noooope. As she says, when the options are “Fight and die” or “Submit and die,” she’s going to fight. Dany’s problem is that the people on the other side of the negotiating table don’t see themselves as having anything to lose by fighting to the bitter end. The deck may be stacked against them, but they have to try, right?
Jon and Dany, on the other hand, see more eye to eye.
While they are nominally at odds with one another (in that Jon is technically kinda-sorta in rebellion against her), they both know that the game of thrones is not a win or die proposition. Once you recognize that the throne is worthless if the Night King wins, it becomes a lot easier to start thinking of trusting potential rivals for that throne. As Jon says, “Trust in strangers is our best chance.”
Sansa sees this too. Despite both her Northern Lords and the Lords of the Vale getting uppity, she chides her sister that “cutting off heads is satisfying, but it’s not how to get people to work together.” She can’t afford to go the “submit or die” route because she needs the Lords on her side as much as they need her to keep the North together in Jon’s absence.
What people in Westeros are gradually realizing is that their situation looks a lot like the Prisoner’s Dilemma:
That is, if everybody could just get along and fight together, then they stand the best chance of defeating the Night’s King. On the other hand if everybody keeps fighting like Cersei wants to do, then the dead are definitely going to win.
What keeps things interesting is that there’s a third option: Make everyone else think you’re on Team Breathing, but hold something back for yourself, so that once everything is done you make sure you’re the one that winds up on top. This is clearly what Cersei is contemplating: “An accommodation with the Dragon Queen may be in our immediate interest.”
Littlefinger seems to be thinking the same thing: turn the Starks against each other, and pick up the pieces afterwards (and to hell with what that means for the war against the dead). Indeed, Littlefinger shows us that he understands the forces that will prevent Westeros from banding together in the face of this existential threat: Relationships and history.
Relationships Are Hard
This episode was striking for how many “Worlds colliding” moments it had: nearly every scene had either (1) a reunion between characters that had not seen each other for a long time or (2) a first time meeting between characters that have a history with each other. I counted:
- Jon and Drogon (He’s a Targaryen, guys, in case you forgot!)
- Tyrion and Davos (“Last time I was here, you killed my son with wild fire.”)
- Tyrion and Jaime
- Davos and Gendry (“Thought you might still be rowing” was fan-service, but it was great fan-service.)
- Gendry and Tyrion (“This is Gendry.” “He’ll do.”)
- Gendry and Jon Snow
- Tyrion and Jorah Mormont
- Jorah and Dany
- Arya and Littlefinger (Not a meeting per se, but the first time they’ve interacted with each other in any meaningful way.)
And then there’s that scene in Eastwatch, which had, in one meeting:
- Gendry seeing the Brotherhood Without Banners
- Jon and the Hound
- Jorah Mormont and Tormund Giantsbane
- Jorah and Beric Dondarrion
In all these interactions the people have little and less reason to trust each other. In a way, it’s a master class in the value of telling a story on television, rather than in just a few hours of a movie. The groundwork that’s been laid over the last seven seasons allows for these rich and deep connections between characters that have never met.
The Jon and Gendry meeting, for instance, was particularly cool because of how much it is informed by the past. Here are two characters that have never been within a country mile of sharing even so much as a story arc (much less a scene) with each other. But here, they still have this cool moment of bonding over the stories they heard about their fathers fighting together. (My only gripe is that Gendry didn’t mention Arya: Jon and Gendry are arguably the two people she’s closest to in the world, and it would have been interesting to see that discussion, particularly now that Jon knows that Bran and Arya are still alive.)
In that fateful meeting at Eastwatch, with characters from—I think—every single plot line of the series thus far, history makes getting along much harder: Tormund and Jorah hate each other solely on sight, and Gendry, whom we haven’t seen in like four seasons, is immediately confronted with the only people that have screwed him as badly as the Lannisters. Ultimately, however, Jon appeals to them with the logic I discussed above: “We’re all on the same side… We’re all breathing.” This gets us our kickass D&D party to head out on the Campaign of Ice and More Ice, presumably leaving their disagreements behind them.
History is a Weapon
But while a lot of our team is ready to cooperate, there’s too much history for everyone to just let bygones be bygones. Indeed, in the right hands, history is a weapon to be wielded.
Littlefinger’s plot to turn Arya against Sansa is notable because it doesn’t involve all that much deception. He could have just faked a letter from Sansa, but he didn’t even have to! It goes by fast, and this plot point was a long time in the past, but the letter that Arya found was the one that Sansa wrote after the death of Ned Stark, telling Robb to come to Kings Landing and bend the knee to Joffrey Baratheon. The letter is only a “lie” because we know that it was sent by Sansa essentially at sword-point.
Robb and Catelyn (who received the letter initially) knew it for a fake right away, but Arya doesn’t. Here again, history rears its ugly head. Arya has never really liked Sansa or thought her very capable, and so everything she sees is going to be through that prism of distrust.
This plays out very nicely in the argument that Arya and Sansa have about the uppity Lords that don’t like Jon being gone. As the audience, we know that Sansa is almost certainly doing the right thing by listening to the Lords complain, rather than beheading them. The last week or two have established Sansa’s bona fides as a legitimately effective ruler.
Arya can’t see that, though. She’s spent her time learning to be a ruthlessly efficient fighter and spy, and so sees Sansa as being hopelessly weak and/or vain. But Arya has never had to deal with palace intrigue before. Sansa would see right through Littlefinger’s crap if he tried this cloak and dagger nonsense with her.
All Arya can think of, unfortunately, is the pre-war spoiled brat that Sansa was, not the hardened badass (one who has arguably endured things even tougher than Arya) that rules in Winterfell today. History, my friends, is a weapon.
Which Sam Tarly understands all too well. His whole plan to defeat the White Walkers is basically, “Let’s get every Maester to open up as many history books as they can, and see if we can discover a way to win!” Which is pretty good, as far as plans go—he’s already discovered at least on White Walker killing weapon in an old book. (Dragon glass on Dragonstone! Who could have known?)
Unfortunately for Sam, he’s too busy mansplaining/complaining to realize that when he said “The secret to defeating the Night King” could be in an old book, that old book was the one that Gilly literally just read to him. In an epic bit of dramatic irony, we’re given a crucial piece of lore in a setting where the characters have no idea what has just transpired. The fact of Rhaegar Targaryen’s annulment and subsequent marriage means that Jon is not just a Targaryen bastard, but is in fact the legitimate son and therefore rightful heir to the throne of Westeros.
More importantly for the wars to come, that means he can probably ride a goddamned fire breathing dragon, which might come in handy in fighting an army of undead snow monsters. So at least we’ve got that to look forward to.
Props to the CGI team for the dragons. Those boys (is one of them female?) are terrifying.
Oh Dany. “Bend the Knee” and “Death by Dragon BBQ” is not a choice.
Drogan is estimated to be the size of a 747. What does he and his siblings eat? This adds another wrinkle to Westreconomics: Would Dany choose feeding dragons over people? Or will she get by with more executions for smaller and smaller crimes to keep the kids fed?
Poor Samwell. He was not close to his family, but after this he is not going to play on Team Dragon, even if he did unknowingly cure Dany’s advisor.
Gotta love how quickly it was revealed that Jaime did not die. It took Adam West longer than that to untie himself from a purple conveyor belt.
And I guess my postscript to my summary of a possible future role for Randyll Tarly in the show should have been, “Or you could just immediately fridge him and his son as hard as possible as character development for others.”
A favorite tidbit from this episode:
When the Archmaesters are poo-pooing the prophesies of the return of the Long Night and the White Walkers, they also poo-poo a prophesy that is not in the books, about the Grey King coming back from the dead to defeat Aegon the Conqueror or something to that effect.
The Grey King is the legendary founder of the Ironborn – in book lore, he supposedly slew a sea dragon and made a throne from his jaw and his hall from his bones. The Grey King was likely a sorcerer and/or a greenseer like Bran as well.
The archmaesters laugh at the prophesy, because of course Aegon the Conqueror won and beating the Ironborn (led then by Harren the Black, who built Harrenhal) was one of the Dragon King’s greatest and most destructive victories.
But if we see Daenerys as the stand-in for Aegon, we’ve already seen Euron Greyjoy come out of the sea to defeat her twice – once near the Arm of Dorne and once off the coast of Casterly Rock.
Just that would be enough to lend credibility to the prophesy and make the archmaesters look silly, which is the point of the scene. But it could also be foreshadowing that Euron could be an even bigger problem for Daenerys than we might anticipate.
Of course, if we’re thinking D&D are really going deep, we could talk about Theon as a reborn Greyjoy King, and Theon will be the one to eventually stop the conquest, or about the prophets like Aeron, but I don’t think the show is operating on that level.
And I’m also not sure they will care next season that they said these things this season – probably just an Easter egg.
But also notable that the archmaesters focused on the wrong detail – the name of the prophet – rather than the details of the prophesy, which lend themselves directly to current events.
It’s similar when Gilly finds the passage about the annulment of Rhaegar Targaryan’s marriage to Elia of Dorne, which is buried in that endless tome about pooping diarists (diarrhists?). This of course is proof that Jon is not a bastard but the legitimate successor to the Mad King, with a claim for the throne that precedes Daenerys’s, but Sam misses it because he was listening to the wrong details.
Sam wasn’t listening to the wrong details, he was NOT LISTENING. I was pretty disappointed with the way the Citadel arc finished up, tbh. For the past however many seasons, we’ve been given this picture of Sam as a guy who loves knowing about stuff. The reveal that he had a childhood dream of being a Maester was a little convenient, maybe, but it fit in with the rest of what we knew about him. His mentor, Master Aemon, gave his whole life to the chain, and then died in Sam’s arms, which you’d think would inspire a certain amount of respect for the institution… And we’re also supposed to think that Sam, under his soft exterior, has a core of tight-wound steel. He can take whatever the world dishes out.
So then when Sam finally gets to the citadel, it turns out that the more senior people aren’t falling all over themselves to do whatever he says. And on top of that, he has to scrub a bunch of chamber pots. Immediately, IMMEDIATELY, he decides that the life of the mind is garbage, and rides off to kill a bunch of zombies with his own two manly hands.
It may be that higher education is not for everyone. But from an academic perspective, this is FAILING. You have to put up with a lot of shit early on, and the people who aren’t really about it get weeded out. Sam just got weeded out. Are we supposed to find this satisfying? The military equivalent would be if Jon Snow had showed up at Castle Black in season one, got stuck on kitchen duty for a couple of weeks, and then said “screw this noise, I’m gonna run off to the Free Cities.” (I dunno, maybe I’ve just drunk too much of the academic kool-aid. There’s definitely a case to be made that the weeding-out process is about oligarchy rather than meritocracy. But that’s not the case they’re making here.)
Mind you, it’s not like the maesters were just holding Sam back, and he’s just gonna go get a better education somewhere else. The interaction with Gilly shows that he has LOST HIS BASIC SENSE OF CURIOSITY. That’s rule one, in academia: be interested in stuff. Even if your day job is shoveling shit. If you can’t do that, then you really don’t have any business in the field.
Finally, the Gilly scene paints a really ugly picture of Sam’s character in retrospect. There were a bunch of scenes back in seasons five and six where Sam was sort of geeking out and ignoring Gilly’s attempts to talk to him on a non-scholarly level. These were always a little uncomfortable, but Gilly would just smile at him tolerantly. We were asked to accept that Sam is just that much of a geek: he’s not being callous, he’s just too excited about knowing stuff! Well now she’s taught herself to read, and SHE’S the one geeking out… and Sam still doesn’t care about anything she has to say. The one constant thread of his character is that he’s emotionally unavailable to his common-law wife. What a frickin’ Tarly, amirite?
I totally agree with you that Sam’s a real jerk to Gilly and he needs to apologize and learn to listen and be partner in the relationship.
But, I think the mistake was giving him the whole “always wanting to be a maester” thing. Because his mission at The Citadel, the one Jon explicitly asked him to go fulfill wasn’t a general love of knowledge thing, but rather to find a way to defeat the Night King and the army of the dead. If that’s his real purpose, he definitely did the right thing. After all, he’s determined that the maesters are so reluctant to use their knowledge that they keep it locked up, that they are so closed off to new areas of study that they refuse to even entertain the possibility that some of that magic mentioned in their books might be real, even in the face of a preponderance of evidence that dragons are around again. He’s also gotten two instances in which opening just taking those books has led to success. So, if his mission is to defeat the dead, it makes sense for him to take what he needs and not expect any help from them any more.
That being said, I think it would have actually been a better if he’d known his father and brother were dead. He always had a complicated relationship with them, so he might not be straight up grieving, but it would certainly hurt. Also, having taken the black and being unable to save his House’s future makes for a logical prompt for the feeling of “having to do something important” as a way to ensure some kind of legacy for himself and his family. It would also at least explain a little bit, though not excuse, why he’s not really listening to Gilly.
The reason I love the character development of GoT is that though some people are messed up and evil, each has his or her own rationality. Because they’re not forehead-slappingly stupid, they pursue strategies that make sense, which gives depth to the show.
And then there’s the Sam narrative, where the writers take it all back. I’m not saying that Sam himself is stupid. He is not exactly complex, but he makes sense as a flawed-but-decent person. He just has the misfortune to be the focal point of the ill advised “bumbler bumbles to heroic ends for six fucking seasons” story arc. To keep it going, the bumbler must radiate from him a stupidification field. The people in his vicinity most probable to get things accomplished must consistently become morons, thus leaving narrative space for Sam to bumble onto things they really would have accomplished themselves if only they hadn’t been struck dumb. Now his gf is getting in on the action, herself bumbling into the annulment bombshell that’s hiding in plain sight.
OK, fine, that kind of thing is conceivable… if nobody else is reading or interested in the tangled lines of the great families. But as it happens, there is an entire institution of very literate people that does basically this and nothing else. When the bombshell revelations for the show’s audience turn out to just be things that they all knew but didn’t bother thinking about, well I’m sorry. That completely ruins my ability to stay immersed in the fiction. That was just a gross fuckup of narrative writing, made more jarring through the contrast with all the other things that the writers got right in Sam-less plotlines.
If the writers can’t take the show to what is basically a university without first thinking about how to make the professors look smart. They may be smart fools, sure. But they can’t just be the show’s only true idiots, at least not without a reasonable explanation. It’s as if the writers expect us all be Trumps and Bushes and tell ourselves “Yah, out of touch academics in their ivory towers dunt know nuthin, makes sense to me, which is why there’s no global warming omg lol.”
I’m pretty sure the show would not have done this if Sam had never existed. A much better way to handle professors is to have them basically spamming the power centers of Westeros with impeccably footnoted scrolls of warning that are too heavy for single ravens to carry. Their political naivete and excessive hedging makes the warnings fall on deaf ears. They obviously have ample documentation about white walkers. I mean, you can’t walk into a cave without seeing them documented in graffiti there, so you know the libraries are full of evidence. But apparently they must have finely-tuned blindspots for this evidence, because Sam must bumble into all of it himself and be the hero. Right. Great plan, writers.
So much for my theory last week that the Tarlys might stick around for Sam’s character development and as some of the old guard. Fridged indeed, but at least it gives us an interesting conversation between Tyrion and Varys.
So: Rogue (Gendry), Thief (Thoros), Barbarian (Tormund), Ranger (Jon), Fighter (Sandor), Paladin (Jorah), Cleric (Beric)—right?
We could also do: Gendry (Neutral Good), Thoros (Chaotic Neutral), Tormund (Chaotic Neutral), Jon (Lawful Good), Sandor (Neutral Evil), Jorah (Neutral Good), Beric (Lawful Neutral). Feel like there’s a lot of room for improvement there, but at any rate, this collection of guys (would have been great to have ‘The Big Woman’ there) might be one of the best collections of warriors we’ve ever seen gathered on the show?
Finally, I’d rather not link to another site here, but in this case I think OTI folks might get some interesting milage and food for OTI thought out of looking at production design details in various shots: http://www.core77.com/posts/68366/Game-of-Thrones-Recap-Eastwatch
I think the picture shows: Rogue (Sandor), Thief (Gendry), Barbarian (Tormund), Ranger (Jon), Fighter (Jorah), Paladin (Beric), Cleric (Thoros). Personally I would have gone:
Sandor – Fighter
Gendry – Fighter
Tormund – Barbarian
Jon – ranger
Jorah – Knight
Beric – Paladin
thoros – Cleric
but that does deviate from the “vanilla classes only” and “everyone unique” motifs. But I would still not call Gendry a thief.
As to the episode, I think people are overly harsh both to Sam and the Citadel on this one. If the theme of this episode was to demonstrate ways that diverse groups can (or cannot) be brought to work together then Sam’s experience show an example of FAIL. The Citadel is not an organization that is designed to act urgently. That was established repeatedly but most tangibly in the “treatment” of Jorah. The mission of the Citadel is to preserve knowledge across millennia. It is unable, in its normal operating mode, to respond quickly to radical new ideas. It requires years of study, evidence, etc. And Sam lacks the training of specific discipline of thought to break those long patterns of behavior, even when given a specific opportunity to do so. He is not a charismatic leader or a brilliant scholar or an accomplished rhetorician. He is, or is becoming, a man of action. True, his chosen weapon is information (he’s far from the only one) – but when faced with an obstacle he cannot overcome with direct confrontation he chooses another way. The mission is more important than his boyhood dream. Life is more important.
But he is still a jerk to Gilly. No excuse for him on that front.
You have my character classes correct, and you’re probably right about a couple of them – Sandor is definitely more Fighter than he is Rogue, but I was going for novelty so that we could have 1 of each class, and Sandor is a more of a “Rogue” in Bauerian sense of the word than the D&D sense.
For Gendry, I wasn’t quite sure where to put him – his War Hammer puts him as a fighter/tank type, but he doesn’t really have that background. I was trying to capture someone that was good with his hands, and Thief was the best I could come up. Plus he’s a Flea Bottom kid, so he probably did his fair share of thieving.
Yeah, I went with one of each (based on what felt right), which meant someone had to take one for the team and be the Rogue and Theif, which meant minor characters were going to get those roles: sorry Gendry.
Another comment in support of Sam leaving The Citadel and defending the show’s presentation of the institution:
I don’t think The Citadel is really supposed to be read as university or academic institution. It might have once been that, but, like many things in the era of the story we are watching, it is in a decided state of malaise and stagnation. I personally think that The Citadel and the Maesters are first and foremost supposed to be seen as a bureaucracy. They are, after all, other than the church of the Seven, one of the few institutions that is embedded in every single kingdom, realm, house, and city in Westeros. One of their main jobs is keeping communications open through the use of ravens. They also are records keepers. I always got the sense that all those books and scrolls aren’t there because maesters want to use them to explain the world, but rather because they function as archivists. They also earn the links to the chains by learning a subject in depth, not by contributing new knowledge. If I remember correctly from the books (please correct me if I’m mistaken), the test to earn a link is more of an oral exam to test knowledge than a defense of a thesis about some new discovery, interpretation or facet in that particular field.
Perhaps they don’t believe Sam and Bran not because they are dumb and obtuse, but because they might not see it as part of their mission to “believe” anything. Those guys in the library clearly have heard all sorts of warnings and prophecies, as is evidenced by their dialogue after Sam leaves, but they might think their whole job is to make sure they are preserved, not actually interpret them. They clearly have opinions on them, but those are personal musings, not professional resolutions on the merits of prophecies, theories, or purported events.
Sure, there is some level of academic and scientific work they do, like trying to predict the lengths of winters and telling everyone when it officially begins, and serving as teachers for the children of lords. But this doesn’t seem to be the bulk of the work that actually happens in The Citadel itself. And out in the field, i.e. castles, they mostly seem to serve as administrators.
That’s why, I think, the maesters are modeled on monks rather than more obviously academic or secular institutions of learning and science from our real world’s past or present. Monasteries were repositories of knowledge, and where books were made and copied, and even places of scientific discovery. But that wasn’t their mission. Monks also often served as teachers, but again, this was not their main vocation.
Compared to monk, the maesters do seem to lack a driving mission or belief or goal, though. My theory is that it used to be the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the world, but that drive has faded to almost nothing. They have become a bureaucracy invested mostly in its own self-sustainment and on maintaing a status quo favorable to itself.
So, perhaps, Sam wanted to be a maester because he believed in the purpose of those long-gone maesters, like the ones who tried to cure grayscale not just quarantine those afflicted. Therefore, his disgust at the maesters not listening to him isn’t entirely a petulant reaction to being shooed way from the adult’s table, but also a feeling of disappointment at what this institution has become.
And I’m going to say it again, because it certainly bears repeating, this is still no excuse for how he treats Gilly. She should have stayed in Oldtown and got herself a job and gotten herself a man who treats her right (if that’s what she wants, of course).
I agree with a lot of what you have to say here. But I think you have a romantic understanding of the modern university. Bureaucracy and intellectual stasis come with the territory — and to a certain degree, they’re features rather than bugs. Preserving the accumulated knowledge of humanity is not, like, a BAD thing to do — and they can’t do that if the institution doesn’t have a certain amount of inertia. The case that Sam has made for fighting the White Walkers, so far, is no stronger than the case that Qyburn could make for fighting Dany’s dragons (if he wasn’t persona non grata in Oldtown). And a more subtle point — maybe this is me internalizing academic prejudices, but Archmaester Broadbent has been cutting Sam an astonishing amount of slack throughout all of this. (The mere fact that he wasn’t booted on the spot for sneaking into the quarantine ward to try some cowboy-ass illegal surgical intervention that the Archmaester had specifically ordered him not to attempt…) He told Sam that it’s quite possible that the White Walkers are real! When Sam interrupted a faculty meeting with a demand for action, he didn’t chew him out – he told the assembled leadership “This might not be nothing, we’d better look into it further.” Again, maybe I’m just a creature of my training… but I’ve been shut down in a faculty meeting before: this is not what that feels like. This feels like the Archmaester’s stodgy academic way of telling Sam that he is on his side, he just needs some actionable intel before he can in good conscience put the Citadel onto a war footing.
I probably do have a romantic understanding of universities. My main exposure was four years at film school spent writing movies, making movies, watching movies and writing about movies. My senior thesis was literally a screenplay. Oh, there was also drinking.
But what I was really trying to say is that I don’t think that the writers of the show want us to see this as a modern university, whether romanticized or not. That’s why I highlighted the maesters’ similarities to monastic orders. I take those similarities as George RR Martin and the GoT showrunners telling us that the Citadel should not be construed as a parallel to modern academia. Unlike most students who attend a modern university, Sam’s default career track was to go into service for the very same academic institution that trained him. In other words, he is not on any kind of professional track at the Citadel, but rather he is training to go into a service corps. In many ways, Sam is taking time off from active military service (the Night’s Watch being the only standing army in Westeros, really) so he can attend a kind of secular seminary school and, upon being ordained, be assigned back into that army. I’m sure you dedicate plenty of time and work and passion to your career in academia, and you’ve sacrificed plenty for it, but is it as similar to a priesthood as maesterdom seems to be?
That’s what I’m trying to say, not that the modern university is or should be this way or that way, but rather that The Citadel should be read as a kind of secular priesthood or service corps, especially as seen through Sam’s POV. How well that squares with the modern university, and what that says about it, I’ll let you talk about because I don’t know. Sam’s actions need to be interpreted and/or judged based on that, rather than on the same rubric as a young college student giving up too quickly.
I may or may not be romanticizing universities, but I think Sam is definitely romanticizing The Citadel. To him, being a maester is a romantic, missionary position in service to humanity. You described it in a prior comment as “the life of the mind.” Sam never wanted that. He wanted the knowledge to save the world. We have to acknowledge that in thinking about his decision in this episode. It is still a very petulant decision, but not one of renunciation or resignation. The maesters have a very different view of what The Citadel is and isn’t. They understand the importance of having their young recruits understand the fundamentals, learn to work, and understand the rigors of the discipline they are pursuing. These are all good, important things for someone who actually wants to learn. But Sam doesn’t actually care about learning. He isn’t really a knowledge geek, no matter how much he and the show try to show him that way. He’s a careless, self-involved, idealistic romantic. He wants to prove himself to his father and impress Gilly with his smarts and book-readin’. It’s why he doesn’t listen to Gilly or the Maesters when they are telling him very important things.
To go back to my seminary/monastery framework, Sam isn’t giving up because he doesn’t like the work (ok, maybe that too), but because he believes himself to have a better understanding of what the work needs to be. For Sam, the work, the vocation, the mission of the maesters is to read all those books and use the information to help people, not sit around and figure out what’s true or not, or what dangers are involved in a risky cure.
You are right, Archmaester Slughorn was definitely being extremely, ridiculously permissive. Perhaps he sensed Sam’s stubborn idealism and was trying to temper it or direct it into a more useful direction? If that was the case, his methods clearly did not work. And Sam was a jerk for taking a mile when given an inch, I’m not saying Sam wasn’t a jerk.
Switching back to your university comparison for a moment, Sam’s not abandoning college to go slack off, which seems to be how you’re framing it, but rather deciding that college can’t teach him anything he doesn’t already know. And this is something I have experience with, because it’s an incredibly common thought in film school. Much like a lot of people went to my school to get access to cameras, editing software, and other equipment (this was at the very beginning of digital filmmaking when it was all still very expensive), Sam is drawn to the Citadel by its resources in the form of rare, precious and expensive books and scrolls. And what does he do when he leaves? He steals a bunch of them. It’s like a film student dropping out to make an indie feature, but stealing the school’s expensive camera on his way out. Which, by the way, real dick move. That’s why I think it’s not productive to judge Sam’s decision in comparison to some desire of his to be an academic. He is not giving up on a chance to be an academic, he has decided that the only thing of worth to his project in The Citadel are the words written on paper in its library. So, he takes what he needs and goes on to fulfill his mission.
And I definitely don’t think having archives and safeguarding knowledge is a bad thing at all, in any way whatsoever, it’s a great thing. What I was trying to say is that for some maesters, in Sam’s estimation and the show’s, which is strongly tied to Sam’s POV, that job might take priority over interpreting and using the knowledge they’ve been safeguarding and preserving. This is probably an unfair assessment of many of the maesters, but I think it’s the one Sam believes and the one that the show wants us to see. I think that’s a big part of the motivation for Sam’s petulant and not entirely justifiable act.
To summarize, what I’m saying is that interpreting Sam’s decision to leave the Citadel depends on how we, the audience, perceive the maesterdom to work and how the characters, the maesters and Sam, believe it’s supposed to work. I think the maesterdom works more like a secular version of a prieishood or monastic order than it does an academic institution, but that it’s driving mission has either faded or we don’t see it or don’t quite understand it (I’ll let people in academia tell me how far apart religious work and academic work are or aren’t). I interpret Sam to believe that there was a mission at some point, or that there should have been one, and that it was to use knowledge to help people. The beliefs of the maesters are hard to nail down because of the show’s Sam-centric POV. I think, though, that we’re suppose to gather that as a whole, the maesters believe themselves to be most useful as administrators and care-takers of knowledge rather than finders and users of it.
You guys are right that I overplayed the analogy between universities and the citadel. The obviously deliberate analogy was to the Library of Alexandria. They even put a giant tower torch on it to avoid any confusion about what it’s supposed to remind us of. But this doesn’t help explain why everyone there is so dumb, and no, I’m not taking that one back. This is from the wiki:
The library was but one part of the Musaeum of Alexandria, which functioned as a sort of research institute. In addition to the library, the Musaeum included rooms for the study of astronomy, anatomy, and even a zoo containing exotic animals. The classical thinkers who studied, wrote, and experimented at the Musaeum include the great names of mathematics, astronomy, physics, geometry, engineering, geography, physiology, and medicine. These included notable thinkers such as Euclid, Archimedes, Eratosthenes, Herophilus, Erasistratus, Hipparchus, Aedesia, Pappus, Theon, Hypatia, and Aristarchus of Samos.
Now I’ll grant that the Library wasn’t always hosting the likes of Archimedes and Hypatia – they surely had some years of relative complacency – but for GoT to call up its iconic image only to depict it as a ship of fools is just needless dirty slander.
In a more charitable mood I considered that the citadel might be a callback to Plato’s Academy, which, after the death of its founder and departure of Aristotle, turned to Academic Skepticism. They claimed to know only one thing: that this one thing was the only thing they knew. But … no way. The whole point of Academic Skepticism was to fight dogmatism in all things, to help people keep an open mind. The citadel is nothing like this. They clearly do research of all kinds, including medical, and they’re dogmatic as fuck.
So maybe we’re supposed to picture some degenerate dark age monastery that collects and recopies books out of sheer institutional inertia. That’s probably the best fit, and what I think Dean was driving at. Still, the point of those monastic orders was to serve God, which is why earthly research got neglected. But the citadel is clearly a secular place. Also, even dark age monks definitely saw themselves as having an Earthly mission.
But the reason why such comparisons can’t absolve the citadel crew of inexplicable stupidity is that 1. they are *interested* in epic matters like greyscale, dragons and walking dead people. If they said “worldly matters don’t concern us” then fine, I’d give them a pass. 2. They have all the information they need to put the pieces together. Don’t tell me that the convenient evidence from the Dragonstone cave sat there for centuries and was never copied and commented on. Maesters know exactly what’s down there, down to the geology. And if this kind of evidence is so easy to read and stumble upon, it can hardly be the only piece in Westeros. Every fucking book that bumbling Sam grabs falls open on a page with some significant revelation. This means the citadel recordkeepers were quite thorough. So what happened to those same people? Why can they suddenly not find their own noses?
It’s just such an unwise move to design Sam’s character to bumblingly hit upon all the key truths on his own, despite his severely restricted access. To make this possible, we are forced to imagine that everyone in the entire institution has completely lost their minds and and came to fetishize feces. And this makes them stand out as the only idiots in the show. I can explain to anyone why even Ramsey Bolton’s actions and attitude make sense and have an internal logic. I defy anyone to do something similar for these fools. I feel like the showrunners really let us down with their worldbuilding here.