Game of Thrones

Posted: August 13, 2014 in other media
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I’ve just finished four days of this program, one season per day. It’s been a bit rough, but I made it through. In some ways, this program fits the definition for addiction: the more I watch, the less satisfied I become with it, but I can’t seem to stop. I hate Game of Thrones spoilers as much as other people, so I’ll refrain from doing that here. Much.

I’m pretty rubbish at remembering people’s names, especially when I only see them on television. In a book, every time you see someone you read her name, but people don’t always say the names of the people they’re talking to. And the names on this show are usually pretty weird. I remember the names that are short and easily recognized, like Stannis, or the nicknames, like The Hound, or I call them functional names, like The King’s Bastard. It’s hard to know which names are important, because sometimes people seem like extras but end up being rather important recurring characters. Others seem hugely important, but only actually appear a small number of times, like Balon Greyjoy. They keep giving more details about Robert’s Rebellion, but I can’t remember most of the story because I get all those dead Targaryens mixed up.

Backstory. Fifteen or twenty years before the show begins, there was the Mad King, something-or-other Targaryen. He was obsessed with fire, and started burning people alive. Robert Baratheon led a rebellion against him, assisted by his very good friend Eddard Stark. Tywin Lannister, the Hand of the King, was also somehow involved. His son Jaime was the youngest member of the king’s guard, and one day Jaime killed the Mad King, saving thousands of lives. Forever after he’s known as The Kingslayer. Robert became king. He had been engaged to Ned Stark’s sister, but she died, so he married Jaime’s twin sister Cersei. During all the fighting Ned produced an illegitimate child, which he took home to his faithful wife. Catelyn Stark can forgive Ned for cheating, but she can’t forgive the boy for existing.

As the story begins, the King’s Hand, Jon Arryn, has been murdered, so Robert comes to the far north to ask Ned Stark to take his place. Ned is the last man in the seven kingdoms that Robert can trust. So Ned travels to the capital to serve the king, which means figuring out who killed Jon Arryn and why. Game of Thrones begins as a murder mystery set in a sword-and-sorcery fantasy world. Unfortunately, as Ned learns how the structures of power work in King’s Landing, the mystery becomes less important and court intrigues take over the plot; they lead to a civil war partially based on the Wars of the Roses (Stark/Lannister, York/Lancaster). The war carries on through several seasons. Meanwhile, Danaerys Targaryen is across the sea, gathering followers, giving birth to dragons, preparing to recover the throne that belonged to her family. Also meanwhile, mystical snow zombies are marching south to destroy everyone. There’s a great wall that should protect them, but the people who live north of the wall (Wildings or Free Folk, depending on your point of view) are running scared, desperate to get to the other side but not desperate enough to abide lawfully.

Issues. The first that springs to mind is gender roles. Jaime and Cersei are twins born to the most wealthy family in existence; he is taught to fight, she is taught to smile. Gender is very rigidly defined, and those who would break the traditional roles end up in a heap of trouble. Brienne of Tarth, for example, is one of the best swordfighters in the show. She’s hugely tall and very strong. She wears armor and protects her king, but people are always making fun of her and she’s always saying either that she’s not a knight or that she’s not a lady. She’s kind of both, actually. I’m not sure what her relationship is to her own body, but she covers it more effectively than most women even when she’s not dressed for battle. There’s a bathing scene that’s kind of awkward; it feels like a violation to see her, even though we don’t see anything. Most of the named female characters are brave and intelligent, and many of them are more effective in achieving their goals than the males. Unfortunately, the unnamed female characters tend to be whores or kitchen wenches. Even those intelligent women often have to use their bodies to get their needs met, and after a while the screen nudity just becomes normal. I kind of went into breast overload and stopped reacting to them. Rape seems to be pretty common; people certainly talk about it a lot.

Men do their best to reduce women to a single trait, beauty. However, they do the same to each other; men are reduced to strength. At one point, a very large man and a girl are traveling through the countryside and he kills a farmer. She asks why, and he says that it is simply because the man is weak. Physical strength is generally the most important, but having powerful allies or a lot of money are also ways to avoid being killed. The pressure on men is most apparent in the portrayal of homosexual men. Yes, there are gay men with almost graphic sex scenes, so hooray for that. But, once a man is seen in bed with another man, he immediately becomes ineffective. Gay men are reduced to their sexuality; there’s very little else interesting about them, and they don’t win any fights. Once a relationship is over, they disappear. Male bodies are often displayed as completely as female, but less often. There is some full frontal action, if (like me) that’s what you’re into, but much less frequently than for the women. It’s almost like an afterthought or a mistake, even though I know it isn’t.

Servitude is also important. Danaerys wanders around Essos freeing slaves, which is great except for the unfortunate race thing, but I’m more interested in the attitudes in Westeros. Most of the characters seem to see their lives as meant for service; they get their identities and self-esteem from serving their masters well. There’s no shame in service, but the dependent attitude bothers me. I go to work eight hours a day, but I tend to think of that as the price I pay for living here. My real life is at home, where I don’t have any masters. I don’t think of myself as serving my employers, either. They do, but I don’t. I teach people to communicate, and in order to work contentedly I have to think of it in these idealistic terms. My teenage rebellion came a little late, when I was thirty years old, and I’m still too independent to be happy working for someone else just to get a paycheck. Almost all of the ‘good guys’ on the show insist on being servants, though, and that makes me uncomfortable.

Reputation is everything at court. It can be built on nothing at all, but it must exist. The world is full of spies and rumors, so it is vital to understand what is being said about you. The reputation for strength is more important than actual displays of it; win a couple of well-publicized fights and you never need to fight again, if you don’t want to. Loras’s grandmother can argue for the value of a little discreet buggery, but no repeated action is that discreet, and people saying tolerant things doesn’t stop jokes like, ‘He can’t be that great a swordsman. He’s been stabbing Renly for years, and he’s still alive.’ It would be very difficult for Loras to lead any kind of group because they’re too worried about what he does off the battlefield; therefore, he doesn’t. On the other hand, Petyr Baelish has worked his way up from nothing to the king’s Small Council; being called Littlefinger doesn’t seem to have damaged him much. As the owner and manager of one of the more exclusive whorehouses, he has a lot of other people’s reputations in his power as well. According to the show, ‘Men like to talk when they’re happy.’ Littlefinger isn’t the only one who rises almost to the top by keeping other people’s secrets.

Power is generally sought by those least suited to wielding it.

People on this show go on and on about justice, but I don’t see much of it. It looks more like revenge most of the time. Justice implies a certain balance, an order restored; there is no balance or order here. Just a lot of violence, some of it for no reason at all. People who watch the show talk about evil, but I think of evil as involving some form of malice that is either without motive or disproportionate to its cause. I’ve heard Cersei Lannister in particular called evil, but she doesn’t fit my definition. She’s selfish and cruel, but her motives are pretty clear, and everyone else’s hatred is on the same scale as hers. In terms of good and evil, she’s not that different from Arya Stark; she’s just in a position to do more about it.

The religion of people is interesting. There are old gods, and there are also several new gods. There’s a group of seven mentioned at weddings, Father Warrior Smith Mother Maiden Crone Stranger. The meaning of those words becomes more clear in Season Four when people start praying out loud, to all seven individually. [See the codification of gender roles in religion! The males are defined by profession, the females by age.] The other gods can be hard to keep up with; there’s a Flayed God and a Drowned God, and probably several more. There’s also a cult of The One True God, some kind of fire deity who demands human sacrifices and calls himself The Lord of Light. He’s involved in several supernatural occurrences, while the other gods aren’t. I think it’s the old gods who are involved in the tree at Winterfell – up north, there’s a species of white tree with red leaves that grows a pattern that looks like a face in its bark and oozes red sap. These trees are regarded as sacred spaces. My favorite religious statement, though, is from Arya’s dancing master: ‘There is only one god, Death. And there is only one thing that we say to Death: Not today.’

Death is one of the most important things in this series. Everyone dies. We all know that, but Americans try to ignore it. In this series, you can’t. Everyone dies. When you get attached to a character, that’s almost a surefire way to predict that he’s going to die. Bad people die, good people die, badass people die, people with nice asses die, everyone dies. It’s actually understandable; there are several dozen named characters, most of whom have their own story to live out, and it’s hard to follow that many plotlines. Solution? Kill people. Maybe they will have some closure, maybe not. But kill them all the same.

Some authors simply love their characters: Jane Austen and Piers Anthony spring to mind. They are determined to give as many happy endings as possible. I have never seen an author who hates his characters as much as George R R Martin. A boy likes to climb? Let’s cripple him. A man gets his identity from swordfighting? Let’s chop off his sword hand. Someone has the initiative, intelligence, deviousness, and proper family to rule the Kingdoms? Let’s make him a dwarf so that no one will listen to him. Someone’s trying to do the right thing? Let’s give him partial information so that his decisions have disastrous consequences. There’s a limit to my tolerance for dramatic irony. The Mad King died shouting, “Burn them all! Burn them all!” I sometimes feel like Martin is going to go the same way. No one is going to survive this series.

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