Thursday, June 19, 2014

Game of Thrones

I have never watched Game of Thrones, but simply because it is discussed so much and a favorite of so many people I know, I by default absorb so much information about it. I know most of the major characters and most of the major plot points. From all that I know however, it still seems baffling to me that so many people find the show so engrossing. There are those who say it is the violence. The writing. The realism. The creativity. The intrigue and drama. The relationship to real history. I've heard so many different types of arguments. 

 So much of this reminds me of the first time I read Shakespeare's plays. I had heard for so much of my life that the works and words of William Shakespeare were the pinnacle of human creativity and expressive achievement. That these were great plays that were timeless in their quality and boundaryless in terms of their importance. When I read them I was intrigued but not that impressed. To this day when I read or hear Shakespeare I still don't quite get it. There are certain parts which do sound glorious and stitched together so beautifully, but for the most part, I don't see how this deserved to be elevated to the holiest of literary heights? For me Shakespeare wrote of things that so many people have spoken of, thought of and written of, and while he occasionally finds a unique way of expressing himself, for the most part, it doesn't seem that inventive or interesting. 

One day I would love to try out an experiment in which I would have students submit as their writing for a class, segments of Shakespeare, with slight changes to not give away the voice entirely. I would bet good money that most of the time the professor would find their stuff predictable, overdone, pompous, pretentious and sometimes just silly. For example, the famous St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V is one I enjoy very much. I even like to watch versions of it on Youtube with my son Akli'e'. But even if I enjoy it, that doesn't mean that it isn't almost ridiculous to listen to. The language is meant to be overblown and it surely does achieve that, but if you can imagine this being written by most any other writer, people would snicker when reading it or hearing it. This sort of speech is common in movies and plays and books, but the line between whether it is inspirational or silly is enormously grey and wide. These types of speeches whether they come from Independence Day or 300 or Pacific Rim can be inspiring to those who want to believe or have given themselves over to the moment, but for others they are almost like jokes.

A critic from Shakespeare's time called him something along the lines of an upstart crow beautified in the feathers of others, I definitely feel this both about him and about Game of Thrones. I started reading the book Game of Thrones several years ago but didn't finish it. The book was interesting that is very true, so was the world and the characters that George RR Martin created, but it felt like so many other things that I've read, both in fantasy and in history, that I found it irritating after a while. The writing style seemed so full of itself, so self-assured, but it wasn't coming close to meriting that style, meriting its own investment. This is not something that I've only felt for Game of Thrones, I often have critiques of this from so-called "epic" stories. There are parts of Beawolf for example that I really love and are truly powerful in my opinion, and then there are huge sections that are almost painful to read or listen to. There are those sections that write in an epic fashion of life and death struggles and battles and then there are those sections which are trying to sound epic, trying to sound so grand, but just get monotonous and tiresome. 

I wonder if I will ever return to the Song of Fire and Ice books or ever watch Game of Thrones. Hekkua', ti hu tungo'. But I do find it interesting all of the discourse that is created around the hype of Game of Thrones, for instance these two articles below about the issue of rape and sexism in the show.


 'Game Of Thrones' Finale Thoughts: Will This Good Show Ever Be Great?

Maureen Ryan
Huffington Post

I'll tell you why I'm hard on "Game of Thrones" at times: Because of Arya's eyes. 

A lot happened in the mournful, exciting and majestically melancholy season finale, but for my money, none of the special effects could match Maisie Williams' gaze as Arya watched the Hound's agony on that rocky hillside. 

As she observed him, her eyes were unreadable yet endlessly compelling. Was she thinking about killing him? Was she pondering how satisfying it would be to check one more name off her list? Was she marveling at the fact that, despite everything he'd done to her and others, she had a weird affection for the scarred, profane, unsentimental warrior? Was she considering that the Hound -- the man who killed her friend and worked for her family's enemies -- had done more to teach her about surviving a brutal world than her own father had done? 

All those things were in Arya's eyes -- and yet, perhaps, none of them were. She's so rich and complicated, and their relationship is so knotty, that those questions have no real answer.
Williams hasn't merely grown in height during the last four years, she's grown tremendously as an actress. One of the marks of a truly gifted actor is an ability to draw in and involve an audience without saying a word. The finale offered far more visually spectacular scenes -- and far more surprising ones -- than the hillside moment. But, despite everything else that happened and despite Rory McCann's impassioned performance opposite Williams, I have a feeling that, months from now, all I'll remember are Arya's eyes. 

That watchful, intelligent face reflects what is best about "Game of Thrones," a show that, at its considerable heights, can pack a multitude of meanings into a single scene or moment. The Arya-Hound scene was special in part because it was the culmination of a complex relationship years in the making. The duo reminds me of Don Draper and Peggy Olson from "Mad Men" -- they've had a mentor-mentee relationship, a weird sort of friendship, they've hated each other at times and they've kept each other company in all sorts of odd and trying situations. But like Don and Peggy, they understand each other. They speak the same language, ultimately, and no matter what, they survive. Game recognizes game. 

It's not as though Arya gloried in the death of the murderer of the butcher's boy. She's only human, after all. The finale -- and much of the show as a whole -- was all about characters coming up against the limits of their humanity and the limits of their forbearance. Sometimes external limits were imposed on them, sometimes they met an obstacle in their own character. But again and again in "The Children," we saw people surrender, give up, accept a hard truth or a painful reality. They embraced what had to be done and all the fallout that might follow. 

Arya, in keeping with her status as Westeros' most challenged teen, ran into a double whammy of limitations. She was torn between her affection for the Hound -- a grudging and fluctuating affection, but an affection nonetheless -- and her unsentimental and clinical view of the Hound's lifetime of violence. She wanted to kill him and she didn't; she thought he deserved to suffer and she wanted to give him a quick end. The solution she came up with was strangely elegant, if awful for the Hound: She couldn't bring herself to kill him and she also didn't completely mind if he painfully bled out, so she just walked off. Of course, before she left, she took his gold, which just shows she really had learned everything important he had to teach ("That's what the money's for!"). 

Some scenes in "Game of Thrones" revel, sadly, in layers of ambiguity: Witness Tyrion's abject-yet-determined demeanor as he killed the only woman he'd ever loved and his own father, as well. Tyrion's awful realization consisted of this fact: He was really no different from Tywin. He would and could kill for any number of reasons, even if he had a deep personal bond with his target. He bumped up against the truth that he is, in fact, more a Lannister than he or his dad ever realized. The profligate, witty, acerbic survivor of Season 1 has come into his own as the brutal, self-serving son that Tywin always wanted but never recognized. Cersei was right: Tywin really never saw any of his children -- only his plans and stratagems for them. They were always objects to him, but people aren't objects and sometimes they fight back. 

Tywin's problems -- and his death -- are a direct result of his towering privilege. He never struggled with limitations or constrictions: He thought he would always be able to arrange the affairs of his kingdom and his family to his liking. Only his will mattered -- or so he thought. As we've seen again and again on this show: Being a ruler doesn't make you smart, cunning or adaptable, and having power doesn't disguise your limitations, it often exposes them. 

"Game of Thrones" shows us that characters who can't adapt and who are rarely or never forced out of their comfort zones will inevitably come to grief. OK, it's true that most characters come to grief regardless of their personal growth, but those who hold fast to old ways or outmoded beliefs are often the least fortunate. Ned Stark did not adapt to the slithery politics of King's Landing. Robert Baratheon could not evolve from a warrior into a king. Joffrey always was and remained a sociopathic little s***, and we all know how that turned out. Lysa Arryn, stuck in her airless Eyrie, didn't interact with the world and kept a hysterical death grip on her little empire and her maladjusted son. What did getting her own way get her? A one-way flight out of her comfort zone.

Ayra has had to adapt. Jon Snow never truly stopped being a man of the Night's Watch, but his loyalties were malleable -- malleable enough for him to get the girl (temporarily) and get the Wildling intel he was after. When we last saw her, Sansa had clearly upped her game, and Bran has delved deeply into the mysterious powers that brought him to the strange man under the tree. The Stark children's father may not have figured out how to play the game, but his children have tried hard not to make their dad's mistakes. (That said, Robb certainly evolved and adapted, but he still died. The Hound wasn't wrong: There is no safety anywhere. Yet what keeps me rooting for the Stark kids -- and Tyrion -- is that they aren't bloodlessly rational like Tywin or heartlessly selfish like Littlefinger. We see flashes of the Starks' and Tyrion's kindness and thoughtfulness once in a while, and we know that being brutal and unforgiving comes at a cost for them. Sometimes.) 

"You win or you die" -- that's how the saying goes, but maybe it should be "you change or you die." As I've said before, power itself is often the lead character of this show, and no one in pursuit of power -- or merely trying to survive -- has the luxury of remaining static and rigid. When it's working, "Game of Thrones" shows the costs and consequences of the most adaptable characters' evolutions, which are sometimes quite painful, sometimes fortunate and tend to keep us all off balance, characters and viewers alike. 

Killing his father and lover brought Tyrion no joy -- only the dawning knowledge that he was capable of anything. Daenerys had to respond to the growth of her dragons, a powerful symbol of her independence, by chaining them up. That clearly felt like walling off part of her soul, but that is what rulers have to do. It's not pleasant to come up against the limits of your power or even your humanity, but ignoring what's in front of you is a sure way to engineer your own doom. 

Even Mance Rayder had to admit that his Wildling army was no match for Stannis' cavalry. Jon, still loyal to the Night's Watch -- or what's left of it -- had to come to grips with the deep mark Ygritte left on his heart. The Hound had to acknowledge, with his dying breaths, that he didn't even have the strength to end his own agonized existence. The ability to change and adapt is a good thing to have in Westeros, but that ability is not infinite. 

Can "Game of Thrones" change? Can it evolve into a show that will truly challenge "The Sopranos" as the most successful HBO show of all time? I'm not referring to "GoT's" commercial and ratings success, which HBO has been crowing about lately. Regardless of what the numbers say (and they're very good numbers), both shows will be making buckets of gold for HBO long after the curtain drops on events in Westeros. 

The real question is this: Will "Game of Thrones," like "The Sopranos," continue to rigorously challenge itself and its viewers with an honest and complex view of men and women and their foibles? Or will "Game of Thrones" keep falling into ditches of its own digging? Every season, I find myself extremely frustrated with certain scenes and story lines, and I end up muttering to myself, "Come on, 'Game of Thrones,' you're smarter than this." 

I might as well get to the eyeroll-inducing Jaime-Cersei scene. It's not possible for me to convey how jaw-dropping and dispiriting it is that one of the most perceptive and humane shows on TV is clearly not aware that it depicted Jaime raping his sister back in Episode 3. It was even more depressing that the scene in the sept was followed in the next episode by the overkill of the sexual violence at Craster's Keep, which is, as many smart critics have written, part of a pattern of problematic depictions of sexuality, sexual violence and rape. (Lord knows, we never would have figured out that the occupants of Craster's Keep were bad guys if multiple naked, unnamed women had not been attacked in those scenes.) 

In any event, the massive mistake of the Jaime-Cersei sept scene can never be undone, and that will forever hang over that pair, thus I have zero interest in their future as a couple. But it's the bigger picture that troubles me. 

In a brilliant recent essay, Bethany Jones put the history of sex, sexuality and assault on "Game of Thrones" in the context of a disappointing decline in how HBO has treated these subjects of late. To be clear, I have zero problems with stories that feature a lot of nudity, sex and difficult characters. But like Jones, I do have a problem with depictions of sexuality and exploitation that feel like they're stuck on repetitive and tiresome loops. Jones is right about where HBO has gone wrong in these arenas (and not to beat a dead mammoth, but I think the disappointments in those areas are directly related to this problem). 

"Game of Thrones" has improved a lot since its first season, but it can do so much better.
"There was a lot that ['Game of Thrones'] faithful audience was willing to overlook at the start," Jones wrote. "They took it on trust. The endless sexposition. The tittering frathouse atmosphere of so many bared boobies. The casual misogyny. In a world of casual misogyny it seemed, initially, like a knowing nod ... But we're in the fourth season now, and it's getting tiring. As this season has progressed, it has gotten darker and rapier, and there's no sign that the darkness and rapiness has any point other than as splaff-bait and as a sort of spurious 'edge'-credential. It's become impossible not to ask: what's with all the sadistic machismo, HBO?"

Exactly. "Game of Thrones," as it goes forward, can be the show that explores the intelligence, sadness and spirit we see in Arya's eyes. Or it can be the show that keeps tripping itself up with one-sided, limited and repetitive tropes and tiresome cliches. And those problems aren't limited to the realm of sexuality and sexual violence (though that is often the show's Achilles' heel). Why was Ser Alliser Thorne a petty, willful tyrant? Because Jon Snow needed to seem smarter than him. Who is Gilly? A personality-free appendage who proves Sam's worth. When will Stannis display more than grumpy petulance? Uh, someday? 

"Game of Thrones" is a massive undertaking, and I enjoy the mammoths, giants, zombie ice babies, fighting skeletons, epic battles, magic and dragons as much as the next person. And those cool things may be responsible for the show's success, but isn't it interesting that the show's popularity exploded during its darkest season? 

A king died horribly in public, killed allegedly by his own uncle. The Wildlings and other marauders sowed chaos across the land. Daenerys crucified more than a hundred slave owners. Tyrion was betrayed by almost everyone he'd ever known and condemned to death. Sansa's aunt was murdered in front of her. Many terrible things -- not just Mance's army -- stirred behind the Wall. The Wildlings and Stannis' riders appear poised to rain hell on Westeros. All things considered, Season 1 seems like a child's tea party by comparison. 

"Game of Thrones'" excellence, however, is not dependent on its depictions of violence and assault, or epic showdowns and skeleton battles. I like to think that its popularity is due in large part to its attention to how the consequences of large and small events play out for complex, flawed, selfish, frightened and otherwise recognizable human beings. 

The amazing fight between the Hound and Brienne mattered because both of those people matter to me -- I love Brienne's steadfast integrity and quiet determination, and I respect the Hound's bravery and carefully hidden compassion. The Tyrion sequences were incredible because one could see the pain in his eyes as he carried out those terrible acts, and yet nothing about Peter Dinklage's performance asked for forgiveness for the character. We watched Tyrion damn himself, and it was terrible and fascinating. There was sudden violence in those scenes, but those tragedies were years in the making, and their fallout will be reverberate for years to come. 

If you want pointless, meandering misery porn, you can always watch "The Walking Dead." The reason "Game of Thrones" is orders of magnitude better than that show is because a scene of a young woman sitting on a hillside, contemplating her frenemy, is the one of the finest things this show has ever done. 

It's a truism baked right into the show's DNA: Sometimes the price of success is higher than the price of failure. If "Game of Thrones" can give us scenes like the one between the Hound and Arya, I will keep wanting -- no, demanding -- that it do better in every realm. 

I recently guested on the Sound on Sight podcast talking "Game of Thrones." You can get that podcast here.


For ‘Game of Thrones,’ Rising Unease Over Rape’s Recurring Role

From its very beginnings, “Game of Thrones” has been riddled with sexual brutality. The franchise, which started as a series of fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin about a bleak, feudal world, has at various times included a warrior king who claims his child bride on their wedding night, and the gang rape of a young woman by “half a hundred shouting men behind a tanner’s shop.”
These scenes and others have raised concerns, but this discussion was confined to readers and critics of fantasy fiction.

Now the debate about the series’s sexual violence has spilled into the mainstream and grown vehement, fueled by the explosive growth of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” series. In its fourth season, the show, which airs on Sunday nights, averages more than 14 million viewers and has become its cable network’s most watched series since “The Sopranos.”

In the latest episode, women held captive in a wintry shelter are sexually brutalized. In the deeply controversial episode that preceded it, a scheming noblewoman in an incestuous relationship with her brother is forced to have sex with him, despite her cries of no.
Rape is often presented in television plotlines, where it has far-reaching and lasting consequences for the affected characters. But critics of “Game of Thrones” fear that rape has become so pervasive in the drama that it is almost background noise: a routine and unshocking occurrence.
Many viewers were roiled by the television episode containing the rape of the noblewoman, Cersei Lannister, by her brother Jaime, and protested on blogs, Facebook and Twitter.
The outrage was further fueled by comments from the director of that episode, who told the website that the characters’ coupling became “consensual by the end.”
That left audiences wondering if the show’s producers truly understood what they had depicted. “That is not what I saw, and that is not what many people saw,” said Maureen Ryan, a television critic for The Huffington Post, who wrote that the scene was unequivocally a rape.
Mr. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” novels, known collectively as “A Song of Ice and Fire,” have more than 31 million copies in print, and have been translated into more than 25 different languages, according to his publisher, the Bantam Books imprint of Random House. The HBO series is broadcast in more than 150 countries and is the most pirated show worldwide.
It’s also perhaps the most popular entertainment property to depict sexual violence frequently and throughout its incarnations on page and on screen. The latest issue of the Game of Thrones comic book, released last week by Dynamite Entertainment, graphically depicts, by the fourth page, a barbarian preparing to rape a nude woman after conquering her village.
In response to email questions, Mr. Martin wrote that as an artist, he had an obligation to tell the truth about history and about human nature.
“Rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought, from the ancient Sumerians to our present day,” said Mr. Martin, 65, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M.

“To omit them from a narrative centered on war and power would have been fundamentally false and dishonest,” he continued, “and would have undermined one of the themes of the books: that the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves.”
David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, the show runners of the HBO series and responsible for its day-to-day operation, declined to be interviewed.
Michael Lombardo, the president for programming at HBO, said in an email that “The choices our creative teams make are based on the motivations and sensibilities that they believe define their characters. We fully support the vision and artistry of Dan and David’s exceptional work and we feel this work speaks for itself.”
Other television shows like “Downton Abbey” and “Private Practice” have had story lines about rape, but they were singular events that explored the repercussions.
“The best depictions don’t just leave it at the dramatic device of the rape itself,” said Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an anti-sexual violence group. “They use it to tell a deeper story about recovery and what effect it has on that person.”
But “Game of Thrones” does not seem to be doing that.
“To have sexual violence treated so cavalierly, it’s very difficult to see that,” said Mariah Huehner, a writer and editor of comic books who has contributed repeatedly to the online debate. “It’s too upsetting to see, and I just don’t know that I can keep going with that.”
As for the books, readers say that Mr. Martin’s presentation of rape underscores the harshness of his world, but some question what they say is his overreliance on it and an often lurid tone when writing about sexual matters.
“The ‘no means yes’ thing is there in the books,” said Sady Doyle, an essayist who often writes about “Game of Thrones.” “The sexualized punishments are there. It’s in the text and it’s vital to the text. It’s something that comes up, over and over again.”
But, she added, “At a certain point, you get the feeling that you can’t walk through a chapter without expecting something horrible — almost always to a female character — just to prove that this is indeed a very scary and dark piece of literature.”
Mr. Martin said that his philosophy as a writer is to show and not tell, and doing so requires “vivid sensory detail.”
“When the scene in question is a sex scene, some readers find that intensely uncomfortable,” he said, “and that’s 10 times as true for scenes of sexual violence. But that is as it should be. Certain scenes are meant to be uncomfortable, disturbing, hard to read.”
As the books are adapted for other media, sequences that were described obliquely in the novels have become more explicit, more outrageous and more problematic. Mr. Martin said that the “Game of Thrones” television and comic-book adaptations “are in the hands of others, who make their own artistic choices as to what sort of approach will work best in their respective mediums.”
Ms. Ryan of The Huffington Post said in an interview that “Game of Thrones” possesses “an incredible ability to make you care about people who really have done terrible things — repeatedly, it’s done that, and I think that’s its great strength.”
“Sexual assault happens in the world,” Ms. Ryan said. “It’s something that we process through popular culture. The people making it should really take it upon themselves to bring out all the aspects of that experience — make it at least as much about the person who survives the attack as the person who perpetrated it.”
“That’s how you respect the experience,” she said. “That’s how it’s not exploitative.”

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