Monday, April 14, 2014

Game of Thrones

(Warning: plot twists and storylines discussed in close detail)

A song of nice and ire

Having wasted an entire weekend gorging on almost the entire first three seasons and the first two episodes of the fourth season of Game of Thrones (a partial adaptation of George R. R. Martin's epic series A Song of Ice and Fire), I pretty much came to the conclusion this is the most entertaining American TV show around: intricate, sexy, hilarious, harrowing, a vast world you could watch in lieu of most other TV series--or movie franchises for that matter.

Think about it: the intrigues revolving about King's Landing recall everything from Rome (the decadence) to The Borgias (the incestuous affairs) to The Tudors (royal descendants of the combatants from The War of the Roses--the history of which Martin used as partial basis for his series) to of all things The Sopranos (the hits, the war between gangs). Up north beyond the wall walk an army straight out of The Walking Dead--only these zombies aren't limited to humans, they fight and follow orders, and they aren't stopped by anything as simple as a crossbow bolt to the brain. 

Then the franchises--Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit--though can I say here and now how much more I vastly prefer Martin's series over Tolkien? Not only is the plotting more baroque and dialogue more sophisticated, there's sex--actual sex--motivating and influencing momentous events, the way they do in real life!

It's not a particularly well-directed series. The battle sequences have little distinctive shape, the close combat is mostly shaky-cam footage cut ADHD style; the zombies are often digital creations without the on-camera solidity of George Romero's undead. I'm especially disappointed with the CGI dragons--Matthew Robbins proved in his criminally underseen Dragonslayer (whose dragon--Vermithrax Pejorative--gets mentioned in an early episode) that it's possible to depict the creatures using large puppet parts and complex practical effects to considerable dramatic impact. The lesson, it seems, has been largely forgotten.

At the same time those dragons, though digital, are a major source of the series' appeal. We first see them as three large eggs, which legend claims have ossified into solid rock; their hatching is a tremendous moment, when Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) walks into her husband's flaming funeral pyre (a gypsylike healer tied to a nearby post, screaming in immolated agony) and in the morning stands in a steaming circle of ash--the little hatchlings crawl up her leg, past her unburnt pubes, over a sooty shoulder to loose a thin screech. Martin is playing the long game here, introducing tales of the creatures as figures of myth and legend, revealing them right after a spectacular bonfire, doling out their presence in bits and piece--not too much, just a brief appearance per episode, perhaps even (if we're well-behaved) the occasional well-deserved torching--while word of their growth reaches the outside world. Despite the fact that they look fake to the eye, to the mind they've grown in presence such that you're eager to see more, no matter how they're rendered. 

Martin does the same for other creatures--the zombies (or wights as they're called) lurk mostly in shadows, their blue eyes glimmering in the dark; at one point there's a glimpse of a giant ("don't stare too long--they're shy; and when they stop being shy they get angry; and when they get angry I've seen them pound a man straight into the ground like a hammer on a nail")--but none of the other creations send as powerful a tingle up and down the spine.

We're talking effects and fantasy creatures, but the glory of Martin's world are of course his characters. Daenerys is a prime example: she starts the series as chattel, a bride sold to a barbarian warlord to be raped on her wedding night; when the warlord dies and her people wander the desert in exile she proves herself a strong leader who acquires not just dragons but an army of dedicated warriors.

She's no perfect leader; she makes mistakes early on and in one memorable episode is forced to choose between the life of her husband and that of her child, with results far from what she expected (in Martin's world nothing's guaranteed, satisfactory or even final, not even the desired outcome paid for by horrific sacrifice). When she's wronged she can be extravagantly cruel--there's the aforementioned healer, and later she orders a man and woman sealed into a vault--but her loyalty to the faithful can be equally extravagant. Cruel or magnanimous, her gestures betray a grand style--even if she wasn't played by the gorgeous Ms. Clarke she'd still be unforgettable. 

Recent commentators have praised the show for its complex depiction of powerful women (Daenerys, among others). Noted; I especially like it that the series introduces its women as adolescent fantasy figures, either naked courtesans or trembling virgins, then reveals their more complex, less comfortable sides (Lady Cersei (Lena Heady) is the manipulative power behind her son King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and yet is powerless before her father Lord Tywin (Charles Dance); Lady Catelyn Stark is the heart and strength of her family but when goaded into a discussion of trust and honor risks the unthinkable: her single most valuable hostage for her hostaged daughters). As for Daenerys, I'm sure her emphasis on liberty for all, including the soldiers she bought, will appeal to many in the audience, but there's a fanaticism to her, a rod of unbending steel to her character that I find unnerving--especially as she has ten thousand stone-cold killers behind her, over a hundred thousand newly freed if untrained slaves behind them and dragons the size of winged horses hovering above all. This is Martin we're talking about; if we admire anyone now I'm sure he'll find a way of making us regret that admiration later.

I'm more willing to bet on the decency of a more obviously flawed human being like Tyrion (the wonderful Peter Dinklage). Call him the Walter White of Westeros--he's your less-than-average (heightwise) whoremonger and drunk, who out of sheer boredom or sense of rejection finds himself reading more than expected for a royal, is hence is smarter than the average royal. Tyrion is forced (along with the rest of his family) into the role of court intriguer, and at one point admits (as White does in his own series) that he enjoys all the politicking--he's good at it. That he's the everyman's point of view in Martin's world, and that that point of view is some two feet lower than average I think says something--about Martin's regard for the everyman or, more likely (and interestingly), the everyman's status in the world (low, but unsteadily rising). 

On the fourth season's first two episodes: well, the first ('Two Swords') is basically a series of introductions and re-introductions, a toe re-dipped into the pool where the game is played. I remember it best for a new character's arrival (Prince Oberyn (Pedro Pascal) with his marked Spanish accent, deft dagger hand, and mission of vengeance involving one of the Lannister knights) and confirmation of another's destiny (Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) in recovering her stolen blade commits her second murder). The 'two swords' of the title obviously refer to the swords Lord Tywin has ordered made from the Stark greatsword Ice, its vast shaft of Valerian steel melted down and reforged into two blades--in a way the reforging symbolizes a diminishment, the passing of a great house (Stark) to become lesser houses (the smaller Starks and uh Jon Snow?). I suspect it also refers to one of the swords being gifted to Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and to Arya's reclaiming the smaller but beloved Needle. One with a stump for a right hand regards his blade as worse than useless, a mockery of his former prowess; the other in her humbler blade finds a liberating power, a reason to go on living. Two blades for two owners, a different significance for each.

The second episode ('The Lion and the Rose') is memorable for a throwaway moment, when Joffrey demands a name for the sword Grandfather Tywin gifted to him on his wedding (the second of the aforementioned Two Swords). Here we learn that Martin is a true enthusiast of the fantasy genre: someone yells "Stormbringer!" (The legendary demonic blade featured in Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone series), another "Terminus!"(The double-bladed, hydrargyrum-filled blade Severian the Torturer wielded in Gene Wolfe's great science fiction--not fantasy--series The Book of the New Sun). It's also memorable for a death during the celebrations--can't have a wedding in a Martin story without a murder can we (admittedly Tyrion's didn't, though there were humiliations galore)? Typical, to give us a death we've been wanting for so long, and immediately pin the blame on a favorite character. By now we should  have known better--in Martin's stories you can't have what you dearly wished for without paying some kind of high price. 

There's also a brief scene where the red priestess Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) talks to Stannis' daughter Shireen (Kerry Ingram) about gods--Shireen speaks of the Seven Gods and Melisandre about the One True One. Martin's careful not to make the identification too close, but Melisandre's religion looks suspiciously like Christianity, with its monotheism and past (hopefully) propensity to burn heretics at the stake (the Seven Gods, on the other hand, seem to represent good clean pantheism). Seems that in the novels the parody is in the same position the original was under the Roman Empire--a lurker in the shadowy margins regarded with fear and suspicion, but poised to engulf the land. 

If we consider Martin's novels (and the series made from them) a world and Martin absolute god of that world, I'd call Martin a generous and sadistic deity both, cunning in the way he avoids cliches, imaginative in realizing his creations; so far he's kept stubborn control, and while not everyone is willing to follow (especially after The Red Wedding, where Shakespeare's phrase "as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods" applies with more jawdropping force than in any other example I can think of in recent popular fiction), others keep a tight hold while firmly seated on the emotionally epic roller-coaster ride he's given us. Forget Daenerys, Cersei, ruthless Tywin or even psychotic Joffrey: any craven act, any moral outrage, any spectacularly sadistic torture or perversion or combination thereof comes first and foremost from Martin's mind--and (to be fair) so do any act of quiet heroism, or unexpected mercy, or lifelong sacrifice. In his head--that's where the real game's played.


An interpretation of Tyrion Lannister, by Noe Tortosa

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