Friday, September 1, 2017

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Start Watching GAME OF THRONES Again

Winter is an asshole

[Warning: spoilers everywhere]

I'll admit I'm not the biggest fan of HBO's Game of Thrones. I'd read the first four A Song of Ice and Fire books twice by the time the show debuted in 2011, and have strong, positive feelings about the first three. I love the characters, the meticulous detail that George R. R. Martin put into world building, and the lore. And of course on top of that, the books are impossible to put down. I spent many a night prying my eyes open by sheer force of will, determined to find out what happened next.

Then came the show, which in its first season seemed like a near perfect distillation of A Game of Thrones. The actors embodied the characters they played; the sets brought Westeros to life; and the lore--it was there too. I was beyond excited for Season 2, when the show would move on to the events portrayed in my favorite of the books, A Clash of Kings.

Only, I found myself slowly falling out of love with the show. You see, it's impossible to capture all the detail of a 700+ page book in a 10-episode season, and that was doubly true once the scale of the drama shifted from the closed-door intrigues of A Game of Thrones to the cross-continental wars of A Clash of Kings. So the writers and producers had to pick and choose what they would bring to screen, as well as take some shortcuts. All quite understandable, really.

Unfortunately, they chose to emphasize what are to me the most problematic and least attractive elements of the books, namely, their excess of cruelty and sexual violence. And the show didn't *just* emphasize these elements; it made them more central, upfront and over-the-top. Meanwhile, I was getting less of the things that made reading the books a magical experience for me--less than I wanted, at least.

At the same time, the source material was still really good, so despite having issues with the show, I was still getting a visually arresting, immersive television adaptation of books I really liked. Thus I could hold out hope that show might actually fix A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, the latter of which I found simultaneously tedious and splatterpornographic.

I would be disappointed, as the show retained most of the tedium and, once again, chose to amplify the splatterporn. The worst came in Season 5, which lingered on some of the most agonizingly boring storylines in A Feast for Crows (e.g. the sparrows, Dorne) and then chose to depart from the books in order to burn a child alive at the stake. That was it for me. I was done.

Only, then Season 7 rolled around--the first that would not have Martin's novels as a guide.* And given that we're still waiting for The Winds of Winter, six years after A Dance with Dragons, there's a good chance that the book series will never be done. So for those of us who've invested a lot of time and thought into the story, this may be the only form of closure we ever get. I decided to catch up with Season 6--which was very good at points, and not very good at others. But I was excited again, more than I had been since the start of Season 2.

[*The show moves past the books midway through Season 6, to be precise.]

So how was Season 7? To quote...

"It Was the Best of Times...

Season 7 is, in a word, campy. But don't take that the wrong way--campy can be great too. And this season was gratifying in a lot of ways.

To begin, I appreciated the shift in how the show treats sexual relationships. Both Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire are very rapey. The books feature more rape than the show, while the show makes up for that by making every rape graphic and in-your-face rather than, say, a reference within in conversation. The low point, for me, was Sansa's rape by Ramsey in Season 5 (which, one notes, is not in the books). Season 7 stops using rape as a go-to device to illustrate how grim and dark this world is. And as far as I'm concerned, that's a very positive development.

But that's not all. Season 7 also allows its characters genuinely romantic moments, so much that the contrast with previous seasons is immediately striking (Jon's doomed relationship with Ygritte notwithstanding). And somehow, among all the things that don't make sense about Season 7 (more on that later), the budding romance between Jon and Danaerys does--on a personal level, at least.

I also appreciated the renewed focus on action. One thing Martin does exquisitely well, and which has also translated well in the TV adaption, is maneuvering chess pieces to build tension and momentum toward rare but superbly-rendered set-piece action scenes. Well, the first 3 books/4 seasons of the show do that at least. In truth, the maneuvering got really wearying in A Feast For Crows/A Dance with Dragons, as well as in Seasons 5 and 6 of the show, where it essentially became an exercise in wheel spinning. So it was nice to see the producers de-emphasize intrigue in favor of more action. That's what the series needs at this point. Even Euron Greyjoy, that most ridiculous and cartoonish of characters, stops talking long enough to give us an epic sea battle.

Trogdor!!!!! I mean...Drogon!!!!!
Also welcome, while Season 7 contains a lot of violence, it doesn't linger on moments of cruelty like the show has previously, to ever-diminishing effect. That breaks the cycle of always needing to go further, from rape to torture to castration to child sacrifice. Instead, we get dragons burninating the countryside--a moment we've all been waiting for. Hell, I don't even think I'd mind if the rest of the show was just Danaerys engulfing the show's many villains in flames. Especially Euron. That guy's annoying as shit.

If that means Game of Thrones feels a bit more like an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, and a bit less like I-Claudius-with-extra-splatter, then that's okay in my book. Oh, and Littlefinger getting punked by badass sisters Sansa and Arya? That was a lot of fun. was the Blurst of Times."

As much fun as Season 7 is, it's also littered with incongruities, plot holes and absurd narrative devices. Readers/viewers who have invested a lot of time and energy into the story may be on board with the shift in tone (emphasis on may), but most I've spoken to are frustrated with the decline in plotting.

The most obvious sign is the emergence of teleportation in Westeros. Armies traverse land or sea in hours rather than days or weeks, while ravens deliver messages instantaneously--from the northernmost to southernmost points of the Seven Kingdoms, no less. I get that the writers need to speed things up, but this strains credulity.

Worse, in my opinion, is the revelation that Jon isn't just the child of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, but the legitimate heir to the throne. Because apparently the High Septon annulled Rhaegar's marriage to Princess Elia Martell--for reasons unknown and despite their having multiple children--and simply didn't bother to tell anyone about it. Oh, and Jon's real name, Aegon Targaryen, is already the name of Rhaegar's other son.

WTF is this garbage
This isn't just implausible, though it is certainly that. Rather, it's the show reverting to that hoariest of hoary fantasy tropes: the proverbial pig farmer who turns out to the the prophesied one, which in turn allows him to ascend to the throne and marry the princess without upsetting the precious class hierarchies of medieval pseudo-Europe.

In doing so, the show violates a core tenet of Martin's novels: that the true heroes are not the obvious heirs, but rather the outsiders and castaways. Not Ned, Robb, Stannis, Viserys or Jaime, but Jon, Arya, Davos, Danaerys and Tyrion. (Also Sansa, but only after circumstances force her to shed her insider status.) The pig-farmer-to-prince trope does away with that by telling us that, appearances notwithstanding, the outsider was in fact never an outsider at all. It's corny, and actually kind of fucked up when you think about it. To be a hero, you have to be born with a hero's blood in your veins. I have a very hard time imagining that Martin signed off on this one; it feels like an innovation born of convenience by people who are now adrift at sea without the sage as their navigator.

The absolute worst thing about Season 7, though, is Jon's ill-fated quest to bag a wight. Why does he do this? To convince Cersei, the entirely self-interested and wholly dishonest usurper of the throne, to join up in the fight against the Night King and his army of undead warriors. This is, prima facie, a bad idea because, as I mentioned, you simply cannot trust Cersei to do anything but look out for herself. It is also a baffling idea because, as we see in Episode 4, Cersei no longer has an army to offer.

Even if Jon doesn't get this at first, you'd think that someone would tell him. Danaerys, for example, who crushed the Lannister army and executed its Warden of the South (and his heir).  Or Tyrion, who watched it happen and is allegedly a pretty smart fellow.

The smart play, of course, would have been to occupy Highgarden. It is the breadbasket of Westeros, its castle is currently unoccupied, and the one-time army of occupation done got burninated. Cersei's ability to raise another army, and keep it loyal over time, is predicated entirely on her access to the riches of Highgarden.

But no! Instead Jon, one of the two most important figures in the fight against either Cersei Lannister or the Night King, traipses off north of the wall with a motley crew of other important figures in order to bag the wight, only to attract literally the whole army of the dead. So what do they do? They call Danaerys via insta-raven, who shows up with all her dragons. The Night King throws an ice spear through Viserion, who then becomes a fucking badass ice dragon. And at the end of the season closer, Viserion the Ice Dragon burninates (freezinates?) the Wall.

Cool, but...
The emergence of an ice dragon in and of itself is not surprising--Martin did wrote a novel called The Ice Dragon, after all. But it only happens, in the show, because Jon starts acting a careless idiot, risking everything for nothing, when he could have risked far less for much more. Now, thanks to his stupidity, the wall is toast, the Army of the Dead is on the march and the Night King has a fucking ice dragon.

This is a hallmark of bad writing, to the point where it has a name (coined by SF writer James Blish, no less): the idiot plot. It's clear, in my eyes at least, that the writers are now just looking for the fastest way to get their ducks in a row. And in this case, the duck is a dragon on the other side of the wall.

Conclusion: Dumb Fun is Both Dumb and Fun

Summing up my feelings about Season 7 is basically a fight between heart (which likes it) and head (which does not). Heart wins out, in the end, for the simple reason that head's been increasingly lonely since the end of Season 1. Despite its many problems, Season 7 has a ton of gratifying fan moments, while (1) upping the action quota, (2) moving on from Dorne and the sparrows and (3) abandoning earlier seasons' obsession with sexual violence and cruelty all help transform the show into something I can just have fun with again, rather than endure for the sake of keeping up with things.

At the same time, it is dumb. At times it is very, very dumb. It's too bad the writers didn't have a full 10 episodes to work with, something that might have helped them get the Night King over the wall in a way that's more consistent with the spirit of Martin's books. Nonetheless, I'm glad I got back on board. Here's to Drogon and Rhaegal burninating the shit out of the Night King in 2019.


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.