Sunday, May 12, 2013

In defense or Ros, final revision

Disclaimer: I didn't expect to revisit this essay again, especially not so soon, but Ros' death in episode 6 of season 3 made it somewhat necessary. 

HBO made many additions and changes for its adaption of Martin’s great novels. The most disputed, the most despised and loathed, however, is the introduction of the red-headed whore, Ros, as a recurring character. Her sexposition scenes have attracted many criticisms, and the screen time she gets seems rather as a waste of time by many, time that would be well spent on other characters. I find these allegations unfair on the one hand, since Esme Bianco is playing her role really well, but also very shortsighted from a narrator’s perspective. The scenes with Ros provide some valuable insights we wouldn’t otherwise get, and I don’t mean the size of her breasts. Let’s have a look at her scenes in season 1 to understand that.
Plus, cleavage.

The first highlighted scene she shares with Theon Greyjoy, who has a short chat with her after the deed. The scene has an importance for the character building of Theon Greyjoy, essential to understand his later betrayal at the end of season 2. Even when he is with a paid whore, he has to suffer insults due to his status as a ward – nothing easy to bear. He gets chided like a child by Ros, who clearly knows that Greyjoy doesn’t have anything to do to her, reducing him to his status and reproaching him. Her second scene is with Theon again, a nice detail about him desperately wanting to see her cunt once again and perhaps being a bit in love with her in his own way, but the scene on the turnip cart serves an entirely different purpose: it forebodes the dreading war and makes clear that it’s not a children’s game of Swords&Sorcery heroics when kings clash in Westeros, but that it has dire consequences for the smallfolk involved. This perspective is not one we see often, lacking any lowborn POV characters, and all the more important. Why not use Ros for this?

Yeah, Theon, you're pretty much a bitch.
We meet her again in King’s Landing, in the famous sexposition scene with Littlefinger in his brothel. This scene has been much criticized, and deserves most of the critique. It really is rather long and irritating. That being said, it also allows for Littlefinger to give away some of his inner self and show how a whore actually works. The latter might not interest all members of the audience, but I found it to be a nice detail. Now, it might be said that it’s “not Littlefinger” to give away that much, especially to a whore, but the small man definitely likes to brag. It’s in his character, like lying is, too. It can be argued, however, that this scene wasn’t necessary in this form. The best Ros scene is, however, in the last episode of season 1, when she shows us the true Pycelle, a welcome and successful addition to the books, to say the least. It would have been really clumsy to just show Pycelle do his workout, so the combination with Ros, combined with some exposition background about kings and an opportunity to see how Pycelle’s ruse works is great. With what other character could this scene have been done? With none. So, Ros scores points here.

What we have seen in season 2 doesn’t fail to deliver, neither. At first, she (now matron of the whorehouse, as it seems) gives us an entry for the child murder at the hands of Janos Slynt (again, after a perhaps superfluous sexposition scene), a face to relate to when Slynt stabs little Barra. In the second episode, she is, visibly shaken by the experience, threatened by Littlefinger. This scene again gives us insight in the character of Petyr Baelish. One should never forget that in the books, no POV ever has access to the “private” Littlefinger until Sansa in AFFC, and even she gets a crafted image most of the time. But I find it entirely believable that Littlefinger would be a sadistic asshole when he can afford it. And he definitely can do that here, playing out his power after suffering the threats from Cersei. 
The series would never divulge into sexposition.
And that scene with Joffrey? Boy, was that gruesome. The show writers really do a great job in transforming Joffrey even more into a monster than the books did, and Jack Gleeson is awesome in the role. Again it’s Ros that opens a window for us as viewers to witness the act, and having two whores we already know carry out the act helps the scene along even further. Plus, Bianco is delivering a great performance in this scene. Just watch the small expressions on her face as she understands just what Joffrey is and in what a situation she’s in, and the despair when ordered to torture her colleague by the king. 

Man, him dying will become such a payoff.
But there is also a way more important reason for her existence than just opening a narrative window in scenes we otherwise might get only in a contrived form. Ros is in many ways a representation of the smallfolk and what they suffer at the hands of lords and kings, and her being a whore makes this especially powerful since she’s not only a woman, but also a woman of a despised trade (but with the access that’s so valuable from a narrative point of view). All her scenes could have, arguably, been done with other members of the smallfolk that we see only passing by (and suffering and dying), much like it is in the books. But that way we would miss what might prove as really important: a character arc. Ros does not only suffer from various noble’s abuse, she also needs to cope with it somehow – a process we could never watch with random victims – and eventually tries to gain more independence, concluding the arc. That’s so more satisfying than just watching strangers. 
Tyrion, experiencing the plight of the smallfolk.
In the course of season 3, Ros gains a small bit of agency that wasn’t there before. She throws her lot with Varys, fully knowing that Littlefinger is indeed a dangerous psychopath, where Varys is “only” a ruthless power-player, and she tries to warn others from Littlefinger, especially Sansa and Shae. If Littlefinger was to be depicted as the mastermind he is in the books, however, this couldn’t go very well, and indeed, it didn’t. Littlefinger found out about her, and Varys promise of protection proved to be as worthless as Eddard Stark’s promises in that regard. Ros died to please the pervertions of Joffrey, in a horrifying manner that Littlefinger used as an example to both his other whores and Varys. 
I can protect you!
There is quite a discussion going on about whether or not Ros was superfluous – I think I made clear that I don’t share this view – and whether or not her death was sexually degrading. A lot of criticism was directed at the writers for taking away her agency, letting her die just to reinforce something we already knew about male characters and bemoaning her lack of even a last word. But I don’t share these criticisms. What would her last words have been? Terror and pain, most like. Was it sexually degrading that she dies as objectified for Joffrey’s sadistic lust? You bet it was. I don’t understand why people see this as worthy of critique. Ros having some final words, dying defiantly as a hero or something would have been totally out of character. Instead, she died as she lived – off-screen, without agency, at the mercy of brutal and degraded men, without any dignity. I’d say this is rather a strong message, and it beats me how it can be overlooked that consistently.

Or are we supposed to cheer this on?
So, to come to a conclusion, Ros did serve a useful role in the show, and one I will miss. While it’s true that HBO sometimes features naked breasts and sex very heavily, that’s not the fault of the Ros character or of the writers entirely. Ros is a whore, so naturally sex will fall into her department. It’s like complaining about all them swords whenever knight characters appear on screen. It sometimes seems to me that HBO wants that sex in as their trademark. Ros’ scenes would work without that much naked flesh, too, however, and for me that’s the main reason to conclude that she is a useful addition to the show. Esme Bianco did a terrific job in the role. I bow my head.

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