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TV Quickshots #20

Game of Thrones (HBO; 2011-Present)

HBO’s Sunday night ratings phenomenon, which has brought serial fantasy fiction to the small screen in spectacular and widely-debated fashion, is fundamentally a primetime soap for fantasy geeks and amateur medievalists. The lavish television adaptation of The Song of Ice and Fire book series by George R.R. Martin (the affectation of that pair of Rs will never not grate) has its devotees and its detractors, and you’ll forgive me if I indulge the detractor side first and in greater detail.

Game of Thrones takes place in a detailed but oddly superficial medieval world. The realms of Westeros and Essos and the peoples and important figures that inhabit it are rife with complication but rarely achieve true depth. Martin’s narrative (adapted for the screen by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) thrills in the intrigues of dynastic power politics but lacks cultural breadth or any hint of social concern or artistic heritage. The tug of war for the Iron Throne is intricately but bluntly constructed, but the daily life of the wider society is barely scratched, hardly considered. In Martin’s bloody-minded perspective, the basic stuff of life is shitting, fucking, and killing and there’s no need to depict anything else to craft a convincing simulacrum of a quasi-medieval milieu. HBO is the perfect setting for such content, ever-willing as the network seems to be to utilize gratituitous sex and violence as sensationalist fodder and debased evidence of unfettered creative freedom.

Furthermore, the characters that populate this narrative are one-dimensional almost to the last. Some, like the sadistic boy king Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), are endowned with barely a quarter-dimension. With the arguable exception of the cunning dwarf Tyrion Lannister (the wonderful Peter Dinklage), the sprawling cast of characters does not boast multiple, contradictory facets or character arcs. They are mostly complete pricks of one order or another, and continue being pricks until Martin kills them off (which happens pretty often and without much warning). Game of Thrones is full of bad people of many kinds, and the conscientious viewer does not particularly wish to see any of them sit on the Iron Throne.

And yet, we watch. Despite the gratuitous “hard” content, the stock characters, the complicated but thematically anemic plot, the leaden absence of transcendence or even heartening suggestions of a bruised beauty. Benioff and Weiss do not tell this story like, say, Matthew Weiner tells the story of Mad Men or Vince Gilligan tells the story of Breaking Bad, with each episode intelligently constructed, interweaving particular themes and sketched meanings with the larger arc of the series’ plot. Their show is a classic serial, and relies on the flow of Martin’s books rather than TV-centric purposeful framing. It’s an ideal program for the age of DVD and streaming services. You can pause watching through it in the middle of episodes rather than at their conclusion and little of the experience is lost.

This is quite the flood of negative opinion without much positive, but there must be some of the latter in Game of Thrones if we keep watching. Certainly there are plenty of interesting actors who do their darndest to squeeze interest out of their limited characters. Besides Dinklage, Charles Dance does well with Tywin Lannister (in his first appearance, he lectures about the necessities of power while skinning and dressing a deer), The Wire‘s Aiden Gillen makes a slimy Lord Baelish, Sean Bean is solid (if inevitably doomed, as his characters always are) as Eddard Stark, and Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys Targaryen is always more interesting than she is written to be, somehow. The high level of the design work – sets, costumes, weapons, props, heraldry – is worthy of praise, as is the maps-and-clockwork title sequence. Set to the memorable theme composed by Ramin Djawadi, the changing locations that feature in the show are established on the map at the beginning of each episode and greatly aid in geographical orientation.

Game of Thrones is essentially pulp entertainment whose hard content, self-serious tone, and historical borrowings lend it an air of artistic integrity that it doesn’t really earn the old-fashioned way (a useful distinction: Martin writes fiction, not literature). But it’s also addictive and absorbing viewing, a fully realized (if basically shallow) world that devoted fans delight in diving into over multiple seasons.

Categories: Reviews, Television

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