I’ve been cognizant for some time of a gap in my experience: the latest craze in fantasy that even non-geeky friends of mine are into: Game of Thrones, the HBO series rendered from George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire.
So over the past few months I’ve been snatching up the DVDs to try and get caught up. And as it turned out I saw through season 3 just in time for season 4 to kick off and I have this to say: I’m hooked. I can’t wait to find out what happens next.
I also think it’s rubbish.
This is the annoying tragedy of arc-based TV: as io9 and blogger Richard H. Cooper have remarked, they suck you in by teasing you with promises every episode of what comes next, so that should it eventually become clear that the answer is ‘nothing much’ you’ve already become emotionally invested.
By my count there have been a maximum of six claimants in the war for the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, plus their extended families and their mercurial allies. The Starks, who are as close to being the protagonists as anyone is, had five seperate branches of the family in play at one point. Then there’s the Night’s Watch who keep tabs on things on the Wall and are facing the return of the undead White Walkers, and the Northern Wildlings seeking their own piece of the pie. Meanwhile Daenerys, Mother of Dragons, the descendant of the deposed kings of House Targaryean, is on her own campaign to build a power base abroad to retake Westeros. Oh, and there’s a lot of intrigue at court as the various sub-factions like the devious and charming Tyrion Lannister and the smooth and lecherous Lord Baelish compete with the King and his meddling mother for dominance in the capitol. Oh, and there’s a religious revolution fomenting behind one of the claimants. Oh, and there’s this twit named Theon Greyjoy whose family deserted him to torture after he won them victories against the Starks. Oh, and…
This, you see, is the biggest problem with Game of Thrones: there’s too damn much of it! Any three of these threads might have made a really great series – except the Greyjoy one, I mean blimey – but with all of them blended together they become so dense that it becomes difficult to remember who’s whom, or what they’re doing or whose side they’re on. It took me into season two before I even started getting their names right!
I rather suspect this is an attempt by HBO at a successor to another epic series of theirs: Rome, a dramatization of two soldiers living through the rise and fall of Julius Caesar. As a history buff, I applaud the idea of trying to replicate historical resonance in fantasy, with all the attendant complexity, unpredicability and human impact. It lends a sense of reality, as opposed to the fairy tale or epic-poem neatness characterized by Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, Martin and the series’ writers have let the ‘complexity’ aspect run away with them and spun the threads so intricate that ‘complex’ becomes ‘indecipherable.’
Not unlike the Honor Harrington series, in fact. The most recent books are a little like the third season of Game of Thrones: characters disappear for ages and arcs get stuck in a holding pattern because they depend on so many other factors slotting into place before they can get anywhere that effectively nothing happens for long stretches.
Which might be tolerable if the fluff and world-building of Game of Thrones were more interesting. In Honor Harrington, you get to see lots of neat planets, ships and learn the intricacies of the interstellar political system, however dry the delivery. Rome painted a picture of a seedy but vibrant civilization where the morals and standards are radically different but still manage to be understandable.
The world of Game of Thrones certainly is rich and big and unusual, but it’s so relentlessly awful that it’s not any fun to visit. There’s no Shire, no Rivendell, no sense of relief or even that Westeros is worth fighting for – inevitably the characters who seem to have the most relatable and promising moral compasses are the ones suffering the above bogging-down of their arcs. Otherwise, there’s just a bunch of factions and armies engaged in seemingly equal and endless amounts of rape, pillage, murder, rape slavery, betrayal, rape and torture. And also rape.
This is the big thing that’s supposed to set Game of Thrones apart: the gritty violence and salacious aspects that allegedly give it an air of realism. But, as with the actual plots, any pretense of boldness is lost under sheer volume. Complaints that the show has a preposterous number of sex and nudity scenes are usually rebutted with the claim that they serve the plot. Even if I believed that (and I get more dubious every episode) it uses them so often and predictably (I can almost say ‘she’s going to disrobe in 3, 2, 1…’) it’s become yucky, repetitive and annoying.
The violence and rape and so on is allegedly in the name of showing moral greyness and the horrors of war and medieval politicking, but once again, there’s so much of it that all it serves to do is make me feel like I’m watching some twisted form of pornography. The long-term effect is that one feels that none of the factions is worth rooting for. They’re all so nasty that I don’t want any of them to win. And at the rate they’re dying, I doubt any of them will.
Which is the third major excess of Game of Thrones, and the most talked about: Martin achieved a remarkable twist by killing off Ned Stark in season one, as he’d seemed to be the main character until then. But then he just wouldn’t stop. It’s amazingly consistent that every time I sense an arc starting to gain momentum, a character in it dies. After a while it starts to seem less as if Martin is aiming for emotionally demanding storytelling and more like he has some kind of pathological compulsion he can’t control. With the infamous ‘Red Wedding’ last season, he literally decapitated what I, and, apparently, most people assumed was the main trunk of the story, leaving only what had been B-Plots with the least coverage until then.
And the ones he doesn’t kill he traumatizes: Tyrion hardly did anything but mope in season 3; Arya’s gotten nowhere except further into a need for therapy, Jon Snow has yet to achieve anything except getting alternately shot at and lectured to, and Daenerys has just been going from city to city, in a saga that would be interesting were it shorter and less burdened by incipient racism.
When the Dark Age of Comics started in the late 80s, it eventually became criticized for trading daring themes and plots in for a thick layer of sex, violence and graphic nastiness. Likewise, Game of Thrones, as far as I can tell, has no themes at all. Nothing about the human condition, or history or politics or warfare is affirmed, satired, or examined. It’s that deeper “applicability to the thought and experience of readers,” to quote Tolkien, that make Discworld, the Lord of the Rings, Avatar: the Last Airbender or Harry Potter great, and it’s the one thing Games of Thrones doesn’t have!
And for all its graphic content, it isn’t all that daring. It only seems that way if you believe the myth that fantasy is all sparkly and twee. I mean, what, other than put ludicrous amounts of guts, blood, and boobs on TV has the show actually done that’s unusual? Wars over thrones are as old as storytelling. I can think of a ton of ways the story could be more original. What if Daenerys was a brown person liberating a ton of enslaved blonde people? What if the setting was Classical or Renaissance instead of High Medieval? What if women and men were equal and what effect would that have on the story? What if the Wildlings were pacifists out for their rights under a Gandhi-like leader? What if the war for the Iron Throne ended with, say, Tyrion calling the whole thing off and declaring Westeros a Republic? Now those are fantasies that might actually enrich or challenge us viewers.
Now that the show has been confirmed to run to six seasons, I can only shake my head miserably. Even if the story gets all wrapped up and the tone turns around, I can barely care anymore. Most of the people the series spent three seasons investing me in are dead, and the ones left are either emotionally crippled or just hideously unpleasant people trying to out-nasty one another. The show’s plot is already barely moving; it could have told many of these stories in half the time if it could make up its mind which ones it wanted to tell. The ‘realism’ is really just a grotesque white noise. The acting (especially Peter Dinklage, but it is well-cast generally), the dialogue, design and music are absolutely spectacular, but the story they’re telling is deceptively unoriginal, tedious and meaninglessly depressing.
Want to know the worst part, though? At this stage, I’ll probably watch the damned thing anyway. But at this point I’m just rooting for Hodor.