KICKING TELEVISION: TV and the Death of the American Marriage

KICKING TELEVISION: TV and the Death of the American Marriage

nullThe first episode of season two of Transparent begins with a wedding. “Kina Hora” opens with a long, uninterrupted shot of the Pfefferman clan, draped in expensive, virginal white vestments, opulent garb against an epic California coastal backdrop. The series, which is the anti-thesis of tradition in society and on television, chose to invite the viewer into its sophomore effort by indulging in the very essence of tradition. Despite the immaculate aesthetic of the event, the wedding and its participants and guests were ugly, and in such a depiction Transparent stood with the traditions of its medium in presenting marriage as a deeply flawed and false institution.

Transparent explores the challenges of relationships. It beautifully examines how individuals construct, compromise, and conform in order to find happiness, or at least endure the journey. At the center of Transparent lie several marriages: the transitioned Maura and his ex Shelly; the newly betrothed Sarah and Tammy; Sarah and her ex Len; Josh and his partner Raquel; and all the bits and pieces, characters and relations who intersect and intertwine. It’s a look at marriage that introduces the contemporary evolution of our culture to the medium of television, a medium that tends to treat marriage with contempt. It’s also a medium that has evolved with the advent of streaming services like Amazon, which allows shows like Transparent the freedom to discuss an institution like marriage with less attachment to the traditions that permeate the network model. 

In “Kina Hora”, the defining moment—as the ugliness of the event meets the realities of the institution—finds Rabbi Raquel (the exceptional Kathryn Hahn) describing weddings as, “a ritual. It’s a pageant. It’s a very expensive play.” The same could be said about television itself. It’s part of our lives, an ongoing and unannotated play, in many parts, in many forms, with no end in sight. It’s a filter by which we quantify and qualify our own attempts at life. The streaming services have broadened the modes and conversations by which we apply that filter. And for the most part what we know as “television” seems to deplore marriage.

I got married this past summer, which was a surprise to many because I had never expressed any interest in marriage. This is not because I didn’t believe in love, which I did; or eternal happiness, which I aspired to; or gifts, which I rely on. I didn’t really want kids, but that became irrelevant, as marriage and kids ceased to be connected the way they once were. I think diamonds are a contrived industry, but I’m not wearing one. Ceremonies seemed opulent and gluttonous, but we eloped. Marriage, to me, had seemed simply a precursor to infidelity and divorce.

I’m not sure why I believed this. My parents have been together for more than 40 years and are very happy. My sister has been married for a dozen years or so, and my niece and nephew report no issue. Many of my high school friends are married and don’t complain about it much. But still, I had issues with the institution. And then, a few weeks ago, I was reading one of the many asinine and short-sighted op-eds that link television and movie violence to American gun culture, and I decided to blame what I believed to be the death of marriage on TV as well.

Television has killed the American marriage.

Unlike the facile arguments that blame media for gun violence, I decided to attempt to link my hypothesis to fact before asking my editors at Indiewire to publish it. Kind of like what Fox News does except the complete opposite. Is marriage, as television to me implies, dead—only worthy of farce, ridicule, and revile? Apparently, the meme that 50% of all marriages end in divorce is actually untrue. According to a New York Times study, “The divorce rate peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s and has been declining for the three decades since.” The piece also cites Fox, ABC, and Bravo references to the divorce rate myth as fact. The same media that both perpetuate and deride TV and film violence as contributing to a violent culture apparently do the same for the institution of marriage.

Violent shows bear ad revenue, as does programming of punditry that condemns them, as does the contemporary news model that treats myth as fact and viewers as sheep. Entertainment is an industry, and I like capitalism as much as the next guy with a paralyzing disinterest in nuptials. But I like facts and informed discourse too, which doesn’t explain why my own fears about marriage were tied to a straw man with commitment issues.

Interestingly, the Times piece begins with a reference to Chris Martin (a musician of some sort) and Gwyneth Paltrow (Blythe Danner’s daughter) ending their marriage. Of course it does. Even a respected outfit like the New York Times can’t make a concise argument in this day and age without tying it to B-list celebrities. It’s a trope of contemporary discourse that we filter issues through celebrity and media institutions. Television is a convenient barometer by which we tend to measure ourselves. It’s in our homes, a flawed mirror reflecting society and our notions of self. Am I as pretty as Rachel? Am I as funny as Chandler? Am I as successful as… well, none of the Friendswere particularly successful, but they had nice apartments and love and friendship and pet monkeys.

But beyond the aesthetic comparisons, there are institutional quantifications, which has lead me to believe that what has actually died is the representation of marriage on television. Once marriage was the aspiration of television, a narrative progression borrowed from Shakespeare. Boy meets girl, boy marries girl, and if it lasts more than four seasons everyone gets rich in syndication money. Weddings were sweeps staples, the ultimate achievement of television narratives: Luke and Laura, Jim and Pam, Ross and Emily. Weddings were beautiful, happy, defining moments that led to a lifetime of martial bliss, either on screen or in the world we imagined as completed series continued in our minds.

The current TV landscape sees marriage as either a cartoonish institution or one unworthy of reverence, perhaps as a result of the false meme or as a contributor to it. The sitcom revels in the former; a contrived wonderland where marriage is bliss, where flaws are adorable, and divorce is just a preamble to second chance happiness. Modern Family is a mockumentary meant to capture the contemporary American marriage, but instead it gives us animated generalizations. Phil the goofy loving father is married to Claire the overbearing mom, whose pratfalls bring us such joy. Jay is on his second marriage to the buxom Gloria, whose accent and ethnicity are a source of endless amusement. Cameron is married to Mitchell, and they’re both men, which is hilarious!

Two and a Half MenThe MiddleThe GoldbergsMindy: these shows all portray similar caricatures of marriage. Marriage is goofy. Men like football and synthetic cheese and drinking and they have penises, while women like shopping and makeup and Jon Hamm and they have vaginas. The dichotomy therein is a hoot.

In dramas marriage is a dismissed relic. The genre just doesn’t seem to like marriage very much. The modern day pulp of Shondaland savours infidelity common as oxygen and rarely attached to repercussion. The adulterous spouse can still be a president or a tenured prof or happy. Game of Thrones is filled with marriages of convenience and despair. Parenthood aspired to a more realistic depiction of marriage, but still filled its six seasons with adulterous leanings and desperate compromise. Maybe that’s what marriage is. Maybe mine is too new. Maybe I’m naïve. Maybe I should ask my wife.

These two representations perhaps help explain my media-driven fear of commitment. While marriage itself is a healthy and vital institution, television revels in its mockery. In actuality, marriage is a joyous union, an entry to a better life, not one of restriction or farce. I like being married, though I’m not very good at it yet. I’m heavier than I was when I was single, attentive but somewhat lazy with my affection, and not as responsible as a married man should be. But I’m trying. I aspire to better. I wish TV felt the same way.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

VIDEO ESSAY: White Knights and Bad People

VIDEO ESSAY: White Knights and Bad People

[The text of the video essay follows.]

When I watched Back to
the Future
with my parents as a child, I remember my shock at seeing Marty
McFly’s mom sexually assaulted by the high school bully, Biff, in the backseat
of a car. The assault was confusing. I remember my first viewing of this
relatively tame movie as a garble of images–the backseat, the fluffy curls of
the pink prom dress, the feet poking out, the muffled screams.

Of course, this entire scene is about Marty’s dad having the
guts to punch the rapist in the face, to tell him to “leave her alone.” By the
end Marty’s mother is all smiles, relief, and pride in having chosen a man who
would defend and respect her.

My exposure to cartoon gender relations was similarly
violent. The female cartoon characters in shows like Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs
liked to don skimpy outfits. The male characters’ eyes would pop out of their
skulls, tongues hanging out lecherously. Of course, these shows played on old
cartoon favorites. Betty Boop often had to avoid unwanted male attention, poor
Olive Oyl was constantly placed in supposedly comic situations where she was
being either kidnapped or harassed, and in Tex Avery’s Little Red Riding Hood,
“Red” is a full grown woman who must be careful of the predatory wolf who
stalks her nightclub. 

When I was a child, the images of a female cartoon character
being catcalled, or a woman being assaulted, did not seem especially unusual. I
assumed that warding off male attention was met by most adult women with a
mixture of pride and mild annoyance. As I got older, I became more and more
concerned about this phenomenon. When even strong, powerful women are victimized
in films and television, a dashing hero saves the day.

Today, in the age of Steubenville, we still worry about the
ways boys and men prey on girls and women. Social organizations often still
rely on the white knight trope when they address this matter. Actors and
musicians who regularly objectify women on screen and in music videos are shown
looking sad as they pose with Real Men Don’t Buy Girls hashtag signs. In the
White House PSA on sexual assault, Daniel Craig and Benicio Del Toro are among the male
participants calling for heroic behavior.

Stepping in when someone is in trouble is certainly
honorable, but the moral lesson in these PSAs provides men with the same
options they had in Back to the Future.
Are you a Marty, or a Bif? Will you defend womanhood, or assault it?

The threat of rape is often used as a device for male
characters to become heroes, which contributes to the idea that sexual assault
is a normal part of growing up female. Rape is still seen as unchecked lust
rather than an expression of violence. 
This myth has far reaching repercussions, as girls and women live in the
very real shadow of sexual assault constantly. We get inured to sexual violence
on shows like Game of Thrones, where
rape is often presented in the background of a scene, something bad, brutal men
do to helpless women.

It’s exhausting as a woman to constantly see the female body
on the brink of violation. I’m tired of the voicelessness of those bodies, by
the fact that we still need to spread awareness about how horrible sexual
assault actually is. I know I’m supposed to be grateful when people express
that they are aware, when men who seem poised to protect me when I go out, when
someone develops an app designed to help get me home safe by checking in with my
family and friends.

The way rape is portrayed today is not so different from how
it was portrayed in 80s exploitation films, where rape is intended to shock and
titillate in one fell swoop, like it often does in the current series Game of Thrones. A film like Extremities, for example, promises the
sweetest of revenges for a female protagonist, but it is the image of Farrah Fawcett
cowering and sobbing, forced to take off her clothes, while her rapist looks on
and calls her beautiful that has become the ubiquitous Hollywood rape scene,
where a gorgeous woman is exposed and shamed and, despite the fact that we are
told to root for her, we are also given permission to ogle her, to see her
through the rapist’s lens, before we see her own experience.

This is one of the reasons that Joan’s rape scene on Mad Men is so effective is that it
portrays her quiet terror without fetishizing her body or her fear. We don’t
see her ample curves illuminated, the way they normally are. Joan’s sexuality
is a point of pride throughout the series, and the camera makes it clear that
what we are witnessing is a power play and violation. There’s nothing sexual
about it. The camera ends not on a close up of her body, but a close up of her
staring at a point just ahead of her in an office that isn’t hers, as she waits
for what is happening to stop.

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
The
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
contests
. She is currently writing her first book.


Serena Bramble is a film editor whose
montage skills are an end result of accumulated years of movie-watching
and loving. Serena is a graduate from the Teledramatic Arts and
Technology department at Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing,
she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.

Attention Red Wedding Crashers: Get a Grip, Sit Back, and Enjoy a Best-in-Genre Moment

Attention Red Wedding Crashers: Get a Grip, Sit Back, and Enjoy a Best-in-Genre Moment

null**Warning: This piece contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.**

If one struggles to name any fantasy-genre
standout on the small screen or silver screen that isn’t a book adaptation, an
animation, or a mawkish cult classic like David Bowie’s Labyrinth, the reason’s simple: American audiences consider
the entire genre frivolous and flippant, and won’t embrace it in new
media unless book-lovers, kids, or hipsters have already given it their stamp
of approval. In other words, outside the context of video games, Americans need
an excuse to love a fantasy-genre production; either it borrows its gravitas
from the fact of it having sold well in bookstores first, it needs no gravitas
because it’s essentially kiddie-candy, or it operates beyond the reach of
gravitas because it’s pure kitsch. The end result is that no one takes the
genre seriously and, beyond a few hundred thousand mass-market paperbacks sold
annually at brick-and-mortar bookstores, no one really cares much about it.
It’s tangential to American life; it’s a first-world curiosity. The reason?
Fantasy authors, animators, and directors have never found a way to make
readers or audiences feel in their gut the grotesque moral savagery around
which the genre is built, or to see in fantastical morality plays lessons with
timely relevance for modern living, and in consequence no story rendered as a
fantasy ever properly lands with American audiences. It’s simply too removed
from anything that really matters.

The Red Wedding scene from the HBO series
“Game of Thrones” may not have reinvigorated a genre—one could argue that the entire series, which
lights up Twitter and Facebook weekly like few other cultural artifacts do, has
done that—but it may well have reinvented it. Martin’s controversial killing off of
three major characters in the middle of the series’ seasons-long story arc, and
his unceremonious ending of the two-family feud at the center of that arc
seemingly seasons too early, is a best-of-genre moment that has roused much
anger among television-watchers precisely because it changed the ground rules
of an entire genre in mid-stride.

Many Americans, this author included, go to
television generally, and fantasy or fantastical shows specifically, as a means
of escaping time—that is, to watch consequence-free melodrama in a space that
feels entirely removed from anything we really care about. Horror films don’t
meet that standard because they frighten; contemporary dramas, because they make
use cry; comedies, because they make us laugh (and sometimes, when done right,
cry while laughing); and romances because they make us swoon. Fantasy shows and
movies are supposed to be more like documentaries that entertain us in the
absence of any informational content; if they refresh our spirit, they do so
quietly and only with our implicit preapproval.

Enter “The Rains of Castamere,” an
episode of “Game of Thrones” that led fans of the series to take to
Twitter and Facebook to issue death threats to the series creator, George R.R.
Martin; many others announced they’d no longer watch the show. Fans of the book
had a similar reaction when the now-infamous Red Wedding scene appeared in the
book on which Season 3 of “Game of Thrones” is based, A Storm of Swords.

In the scene immediately preceding the Red
Wedding in the Robb Stark/Catelyn Stark storyline, the King of the North’s
mother urges him to let his mortal enemies, the Lannisters, know what it feels
like to lose something they love. It’s considered, by both Stark scions, to be
just about the only thing that will awaken the callous Lannisters from their
complacent wealth and endless political victories (also, a string of de facto
military victories brought on not by their own military prowess but the
weakness and disorder of their enemies). In the very same way, Martin’s killing
off of the two senior Starks has affected a complacent, wealthy, victory-rich
nation—America—by taking from it two characters it loves and admires, and doing
so without any of the advance warning first-world countries implicitly demand
before they’re handed a major defeat. That’s what really gets our goat about
the Red Wedding: It was a sneak attack against our affections and our courage,
launched from a platform (the fantasy genre) which has long been free of
such audience-rattling excursions. It’s no wonder the most successful
fantasy-film franchise in the history of Hollywood, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was based on a book Britons once voted
the best of the twentieth century and which, consequently, both the English and
their American cousins already know the ending to. The Red Wedding was
something different; it was a nasty surprise that stole from us something we
actually value and made us actually hurt, thereby breaching the contract
fantasy readers and filmgoers have implicitly always had with the genre.

But George R.R. Martin has taken this particular
best-in-genre moment even further, and in doing so has returned fantasy to
real-time cultural consequence for the first time in, well, forever. Fans
mourning the deaths of Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark, and Talisa Stark fail to see
that these are precisely the characters who needed to die. They needed to die
immediately and they needed to die in precisely this way, for what has always
made the fantasy genre the most underrated of all the genres is not only that
(as with the Red Wedding) it carries the capacity to move us as deeply as any
other form of entertainment, but also that it teaches us better than any other
genre about the moral savagery that still endangers us daily. Whatever we may say
of their deaths, the now-deceased Stark trio each had it better than almost
anyone in Westeros, which left viewers with little to learn from them except
the falsehood that in an unpredictable world the emotionally rich are rarely in
peril. 

Robb Stark had a father who not only loved him
but inspired him, a mother who loved him and modeled for him every strength a
man or woman of any time-period could need, a wife with whom he shared true love, a home for which he felt genuine fondness and with which he shared a
genuine spiritual attachment, brothers and bannermen and vassals who he loved
and who loved him in return. He knew himself, he knew his cause to be just, and
he knew himself to be capable of generative moral audacity and abiding
political courage. The same could be said of his wife and his mother, excepting
that his mother also enjoyed the most loving marriage in Westerosi history for
several decades and was perhaps the first mother in Westerosi history to be
sincerely and justifiably proud of every one of her children (even Sansa). The
tragedy of her last year of life, like the tragedies of Robb’s and Talisa’s
last months together, in no way erases the permanent mark of a life well lived.

In a fantasy book or film, we expect emotional
removal and cultural irrelevance, and so we expect a life well lived to end happily,
as in our own reality they so often do not. In our reality, children are killed
by cluster bombs dropped pursuant to military squabbles they have nothing to do
with; loving mothers are killed in childbirth or by drunk drivers or from
breast cancer; good men are ruined by men with fewer scruples, baser instincts,
and a larger quantity of money. Sometimes, but with precious rarity, what is
true in life is also true in fantasy: We learn from goodness, when we learn
from it at all, only from its downfall. That that’s a lesson we rarely get from
artifacts of the fantasy genre is something we’ve come to live with, in fact
it’s become something that (ironically) makes fantasy palatable to American
audiences.

We call George R.R. Martin a cretin for killing
off the three most noble Starks this side of Arya—Ned, Robb, and Catelyn—but
look for a moment at the miserable lives of his tale’s supposed
“victors.” Cersei is still alive; she’s a beautiful and intelligent
woman who’s never felt romantic love for anyone but her brother, is afforded a
tenth of the respect her intellect deserves, was married off like a parcel of
property (and is about to be so married again) to a man she doesn’t love or
respect, has no mother and fears rather than loves her father, has no friends,
parented a sociopath into a reign of unfettered derangement, and will never
achieve even a fraction of her life’s ambitions. Her brother and lover Jamie
Lannister has led a life of such self-loathing that the first consequential
interpersonal encounter of his thirty-something years is with a six-foot-tall
virginal pariah who’s charged with his prisoner’s transport; it’s not clear that
he’s ever had sex with anyone but his sister or been loved by anyone but her
and his near-universally-despised little brother. Petyr Baelish has spent his
entire life pining after a woman who doesn’t love him and compensating for a
childhood spent getting the snot beat out of him by stronger, taller,
better-looking, better-armored men. He has not a single friend. Lord Varys is a
castrato who endured years of penury, torture, forcible rape, and public
humiliation just so he could work harder than anyone in his immediate vicinity
on behalf of a kingdom that does not appear to deserve (or in any sense
appreciate) his efforts to counter Baelish’s Chaos with Order. Let’s put aside
that no one loves him, either, that he loves no one, and that his only
“friend” is Tyrion Lannister—who doesn’t trust him. All of these
people, and the many other Lannisters and assorted baddies who survived the Red
Wedding, are miserable wretches whose lives and loves we do not admire or envy.
The few days and weeks and months we’re permitted to watch their lives
notwithstanding, they’ve suffered substantially more, and lived substantially less
well, than those they have killed or have just heard about being killed at the
Red Wedding.

The lesson of the Red Wedding, then, isn’t just
that well-written fantasy takes from us things that are precious to us in a way
that actually hurts us, but that we learn more from the suffering of the bad
than the clean living of the good. This isn’t a lesson we normally associate
with fantasy–in fantasy, or so the casual fantasy-watcher thinks, the evil
ultimately perish and the good ultimately prosper—but it’s a lesson many of us
have been associating with the very best exemplars of the genre for a very long
time. If you’re a Ned Stark-like father-figure who happens to live in a
war-torn Middle Eastern country, all your hard lessons about righteousness and
many years of dedicated love may not keep your children or wife safe; if
you’re a homosexual in the wrong place on Earth, your true love for another may
someday lead to your brutal murder; if the way you live and love is an
inspiration to others, you may have your entire life toppled someday by someone
lacking your stringent codes of honor and various self-restrictions. The only
way to encourage a nation to fight the worst human instincts—whether they arise
from within the nation or without it—is to engender in that nation an abiding
understanding of what it means to lose what one loves and what it means to
watch the devious succeed. By the same token, the only way to encourage a
nation to honor the best human instincts—whether they arise from within the
nation or without it—is to enforce an understanding that goodness sometimes
leads to happiness before it leads to tragedy, and that savagery often leads to
misery before (and even while) it leads to perpetual skin-of-one’s-teeth
survival.

One of the worst things about human history is that
we have often learned the above lessons, when we’ve learned them at all, from
violence and loss of life; one of the best things about human history is its
continual production and reproduction of art, and one of the best things about art is that it teaches us what we need to learn about ourselves and language
and the nature of attachment without any accompanying need for bloodshed.

Don’t hate George R.R. Martin for taking from
you what you love, “Game of Thrones” viewers, thank him. Don’t hate “Game
of Thrones” for bending the conventions of fantasy to make you feel
something real in real-time, be grateful for it. And don’t underestimate the
beauty of something good—whether a life or a love—because it’s ended, nor
overestimate the comforts of something false and miserable because it persists.
Most of all, don’t treat the death of a pregnant woman, her husband, and his
mother as the end of an era for a television program; treat it as what it is:
the rebirth of an entire genre, and a regeneration of the belief all
well-intentioned persons share, which is that living justly and kindly is its
own reward and earns back any subsequent cost a thousand times over.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for
The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.

GAME OF THRONES RECAP 10: VALAR MORGHULIS

GAME OF THRONES RECAP 10: VALAR MORGHULIS

nullOne of the key questions facing Game Of Thrones the series, as well as its source material, is: “What’s this about?” And by this I mean: “What is this story? How is it being told? Where is this leading?” Certainly there’s drama, and characters change, grow, collapse, or die, but it’s difficult to see a clear structure at times. “Valar Morghulis,” as a season finale, did provide appropriate resolutions for most of the characters’ stories this season. But it struggled to collect them—it’s just a bunch of stuff that happens, in the words of Homer Simpson. Still, it’s a compelling bunch of stuff that happens.

nullThe Hero’s Journey is the default reading of most fantasy stories, and Game Of Thrones gives that opportunity with two of its characters: Jon Snow and Danaerys Targaryen. Both are born of noble blood, but are also outsiders. Both are young, and they are undergoing journeys of self-improvement as well as quests of external improvements. Both are also dealing with the most magic of any of the characters. Dany has her dragons, and Jon has fought one of the White Walkers, while the threat of more wraiths hangs over the Night’s Watch.

I’m not sold on this interpretation—Game Of Thrones seems too delighted to subvert fantasy tropes to fully follow through on the monomyth—but each character continues their journey in “Valar Morghulis.” Danaerys has had a bad season, sounding increasingly shrill over the course of her time in the unfriendly city of Qarth, but the climax of the episode finally justifies the time spent on her this year. Heading into the home of the warlocks led by Pyat Pree, she finally has the chance to demonstrate in action what she’s been shouting about all season, burning the magician and regaining her power. Yet her most important action isn’t her connection with her dragons, inciting them to violence. It’s rejecting the illusion of her dead husband and child. Her more youthful dream of a happy life with Khal Drogo is gone, and the steely Emilia Clarke realizes this quickly, giving her agency over her life again.

On the other hand, Jon Snow’s climactic act, a duel with the veteran ranger Qhorin Halfhand, represents arguably Game Of Thrones biggest failure this entire season. There is a reason for the duel—Qhorin mentioned it in a quick whisper two episodes ago—but if you can’t remember and extrapolate from “I hope you can do what you need to do” followed by a series of louder insults, I can’t blame you. We’re supposed to understand that Qhorin is doing this so that the wildlings will accept Jon, which will make him a more effective spy. But that relies on a single whispered line from two episodes ago. So, for all appearances, Jon is just a dupe, on multiple levels. For a character who could easily be described as the most traditional hero in the series, this is a serious problem.

A second interpretation of the overall story of Game Of Thrones is that it’s the story of the Stark family in a complicated civil war. Our main characters, after all, are Cat, Jon, Arya, Sansa, Bran, Robb, and formerly Ned (also little Rickon, attached to Bran). Dany and Tyrion are major as well, but under this theory, they exist largely to flesh out the story.

Sansa, for example, is our Stark gateway in King’s Landing. We see the new alliance between the Tyrells and the Lannisters both as the political intrigue that won the biggest battle of the civil war so far, but we also see it through Sansa’s eyes. Sophie Turner demonstrates her embarrassment at being publicly humiliated, yes, but also her joy at being free of her betrothal to the sociopathic Joffrey (though this is negated when the increasingly creepy Littlefinger promises to “help” her).

Her older brother Robb has a simpler story—he’s in love with Talisa, and decides to marry her. Cat, still under arrest for freeing Jaime Lannister, tries to talk him out of doing anything foolish, but she has no ground to stand on. Robb both follows his heart and his honor, marrying the woman he had sex with. It’s a sweet scene, and it parallels other loving scenes the episode surrounds it with, but it lacks depth.

Arya Stark has a similar issue, resolving her story with Jaqen H’ghar, but little else. I’ve complimented the child actors on the show before, but there are some issues here. Jaqen invites Arya to learn his killing strengths, but Arya says no, remembering her family. This is all good, but the struggle to remember her sister Sansa is a bit too obvious. It’s still amusing from a character perspective, but it’s quite transparently “television” in a way that Game Of Thrones, and HBO house style, tend to avoid.

A third response to the “What does it mean?” question is the most complex, subtle, and in my opinion rewarding: Game Of Thrones is about war and its effects. One of the things that has disappointed me about this season of the series, compared to the novels, is the lack of portrayal of the war’s effects. The best scene of “Valar Morghulis” finally depicts the brutality of the war, as well as the complexity of morality during civil war: Brienne of Tarth is still escorting the ever-snarky/charming Jaime Lannister to the capital, when she comes across a set of corpses.

They’re three women, hung with a sign saying that “They lay with lions.” The single image conveys brutality: we’re supposed to believe the Starks are good and the Lannister (lions) are evil. Yet here are three women killed for the crime of supposedly having slept with members of the Lannister army. The men who show up to confront Brienne—and explain the deaths—show the issues of civil war. They don’t take initial credit for the killings. They’re not dressed in uniform. They ask Brienne who she serves, but only after mocking her. And they are cruel men, quickly and violently dispatched.

Despite the initial thrill of seeing Brienne—the insulted woman—succeed in her violence, the scene is still discomfiting. The northerners are supposed to be, at the least, more heroic than their southern counterparts. These men are rapists and murderers. But worse than that: Are they even evil than Jaime Lannister, the charmingly sarcastic prisoner being saved by Brienne? Jaime is handsome, clever, and in the main credits, but he’s also Ned Stark’s rival, a man who tried to kill a 10-year-old boy, and he's conducting an incestuous, adulterous affair with the queen. Jaime survives because he’s important. These men die because they’re not. This is the war of Game Of Thrones, and it’s a difficult and bloody war at that.

The episode’s other most powerful scenes also avoid the heroes and Starks. Tyrion Lannister is surviving his wounds from the battle of Blackwater, yes. But his exploits in the battle have been ignored. His father Tywin receives the accolades while Tyrion gets moved to more modest quarters. His only ally is Lord Varys, the eunuch whom the show depicts as having been outmanuevered by Littlefinger’s successful arrangement of the Tyrell-Lannister alliance. Varys brings Tyrion his mistress Shae, leading the to the most affecting scene of the episode, wherein Shae professes her loyalty to the scarred Imp. Both Kekilli and especially Dinklage act the hell out of this scene, providing a stellar emotional core to “Valar Morghulis.”

Finally, the most complete part of the episode occurs in Winterfell. Theon Greyjoy is surrounded by the Bastard of Bolton and his troops, with 500 men against 20. Maester Luwin provides Theon with council, and Theon (and Alfie Allen) lay his entire life, his motivations, and his insecurities out for the viewers and the Maester to see. Here, Theon turns from a ridiculous figure into a tragic one. He has no home and no one to trust, so he relies on his masculinity and ambition to give his pathetic life some meaning. This urge manifests itself in a speech he gives to his men, wonderful both for its position within Theon’s narrative and because it's a joke: he's cut short by his men, who just want to use Theon’s body as leverage to get home. At every point, Theon has been given chances to be better. He has wasted them, trying to gain the respect of men who never would have respected him anyway. This may be Game Of Thrones at its smartest: Theon is trapped by his attempts to be as masculine and powerful as possible. He’s not. Maybe he never has been. Everyone, including him, recognizes this. But he feels that he has no choice but to continue.

Add these stories all up, and what is the sum? I don’t think there is one, other than that the third season, ten months away, can’t arrive soon enough in plot terms. The final two episodes have demonstrated the dynamism that Game Of Thrones’ tight serialization can provide, like no other show on television right now. On the other hand, there are serious issues with Game Of Thrones’ structure. They can certainly be masked by momentum, but the connection—or lack thereof—of the myriad of stories has to be a constant concern for the series’ fans and creators.

Adaptation:

Most of the stories portrayed in “Valar Morghulis” are significantly different from those in the book, yet most of these still point to an endpoint of the later books, used as major reference. The Bastard Of Bolton may not have made his appearance here, but the ambiguity about the sack of Winterfell leaves room for interpretation. Likewise, Jon Snow’s arc as an idiot may have been painful, but it leaves him in a position to be less terrible in the future.

My biggest disappointment with the episode—apart from the lack of redemption for Arya’s story mistakes two weeks ago—comes from the Cat—Robb interaction. In the novels, both Cat and Robb discover each others’ crimes at the same time. Robb gets married in the west, then returns to discover that Cat has freed Jaime. His forgiveness for her act based on love is a defense of his own act of love, a manipulation which both impresses and frightens Cat. We only get a tiny part of that in a conversation where an ineffectual Cat attempts to persuade Robb of the virtue of arranged marriage, which Robb can dismiss thanks to her release of the Kingslayer. It’s good—but the scene in the book was great.

A final word has to be given to the cliffhanger at the end of “Valar Morghulis.” The White Walkers have been an ominous threat since the cold open of Game Of Thrones’  first episode, but have rarely been physically threatening. Now, we see an army. And while in story terms, the army of wraiths attacking the Night’s Watch is certainly ominous, the CGI used to depict the supernatural threat just can’t quite manage it. The pseudo-zombies shown are just a bit too cartoonish, and some of the horde that follows are all too obviously just topless actors’ backs staggering in front of a bluescreen. But this is the way the novels’ story goes, so some depiction is necessary. We have to see the undead threat, even if that threat, treated literally on-screen, is insufficient compared to the danger on the page. The episode’s other most powerful scenes also avoid the heroes and Starks, focusing instead on the effects of the war on two of this season's most dynamic characters, Tyrion and Theon.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.

GAME OF THRONES RECAP 9: BLACKWATER

GAME OF THRONES RECAP 9: BLACKWATER

We know what we’re getting when we watch a Game Of Thrones episode, right? We’re getting some beautifully shot scenes, certainly; this has been one of the best-looking shows on television since its premiere. We know that the actors will be good, if not great. We know that we’ll see a wide variety of different, possibly intersecting plots, divided by geography. And we know that while there might be some action, it’ll be parceled out for more drama, more cliffhangers, but probably not catharsis. It’s a decent structure. It’s served the show well, as well as working for other HBO shows like The Wire, Treme, and Boardwalk Empire.

Except that’s not what happened in “Blackwater.”

It takes confidence to alter the formal structure of a television show, but it’s also often the best thing a show can do. Shows like The Sopranos and Buffy The Vampire Slayer changed television dramatically while relying on a series of formal experiments: “College” and “Pine Barrens” from The Sopranos, or “Band Candy” and “The Body” from Buffy. The way you think the show should work, the way television normally works? That’s not what happens. If done competently, these experiments can be fun episodes. If done well? They’re among the best television can do.

“Blackwater” was an experiment done well.

I was partially wrong about last week’s episode. I assumed that everything was leading up to a climactic ninth episode of the season. We’d see Theon defending Winterfell; we’d see Dany chasing her dragons; we’d see a culmination of Robb’s romance; we’d see Jon trying to survive his capture by the wildlings; we’d see Arya, having escaped into the wilderness; we’d see the battle of Blackwater, with Stannis’ forces attacking Tyrion and the Lannisters at King’s Landing.

What we got was only the last of those. The climactic battle of the season turned out to be the entirety of the episode. Stannis attacks King’s Landing, and Tyrion defends it. Nothing else happens this episode. It is, unlike any other of the 18 episodes preceding it, entirely focused on a single story, focused only on the characters in one specific locale.

And that’s just what Game Of Thrones needed.

There are still issues. My complaints about Arya and Cat losing agency last week are still valid. There’s still a great deal of ground to cover next week. I don’t know that there’s going to be enough time left to tie it all together. The season has had issues of thematic coherence roughly equivalent to the difficulties with coherence in the novel A Clash Of Kings. Yet, while those things can be argued about the season as a whole, they don’t take away from the achievement of “Blackwater.”

“Blackwater” derives its power from its relative simplicity. It removes the extra plots, focusing on the overarching climax of the Clash Of Kings that gave the story its name in book form. Stannis, with the former Targaryen lands plus the Baratheon vassals, attacks King Joffrey in King’s Landing, with the power of the capital and the Lannisters behind him. As presented, these are the two most powerful forces in the southlands (with Robb Stark leading an equally powerful army from the north).

Yet while that simplicity increases the drama of the episode for the characters we care about—Tyrion primarily—it also demonstrates one of the biggest problems of the season: in the Stannis versus Joffrey confrontation, we have many reasons to cheer against Joff, but no particular reason to cheer for Stannis. That makes it necessary for “Blackwater” to build that drama via the few characters who will be affected. This means Davos and his son, preparing for the battle. This means the Hound and Bronn, whose stress makes them competitors, while battle makes them friends. This means Tyrion with Varys, with Sansa, with Joffrey, and with Shae. This means Sansa Stark, who finally gets the chance to shine, first by sarcastically undermining Joffrey, then by cleaning up the mess left by a drunken Cersei Lannister.

The action in “Blackwater” is very good. It’s fantastic, given the constraints of television. I, along with many other online commenters, compared it to the attack on Helm’s Deep from Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers. Some of the individual pieces of action aren’t quite film-level, but in terms of building then releasing tension, the episode is great.

First, Stannis has an overwhelming advantage in numbers, which Tyrion lessens with his wildfire attack. This is a loaded sequence for a variety of reasons. First, there’s the simple technology of it: this is what HBO has been saving their CGI for, and it’s worth it. The green fire and the explosion look great. Beyond that, the number of extras involved in the action sequences give an epic feeling beyond the computer technology.

Tyrion’s surprise fire attack also links him to great strategists in literary history as well. His plan, to me, is reminiscent of the Zhou Yu/Zhuge Liang plot in the Three Kingdoms novel, most recently portrayed visually in John Woo’s uneven but fascinating 2008 film Red Cliff. The idea that a lone brilliant man can use surprise and the elements, particularly fire, in order to even out incredibly uneven odds is a common conceit of literature. Tyrion here is Odysseus, creating the Trojan Horse, or Caesar at Pharsalus, surprising Pompey’s cavalry, as well as Zhuge Liang, the near-deified strategist of the Three Kingdoms. Lord Varys even makes this clear early in the episode, saying that Stannis has allied with dark forces, and Tyrion is “the only man who can stop him.” There’s also the straightforward historical precedent of Byzantine “Greek fire,” the secret weapon of that famous fleet.

Yet Tyrion’s (and Peter Dinklage’s) greatest triumph isn’t his strategy, it’s that when the battle hangs in the balance, he builds his courage and makes a speech to save King’s Landing. His speech isn’t an appeal to the ideals of the Seven Kingdoms. Instead, it’s an appeal to the darkness of the series. He specifically tells his men not to fight for honor. He tells them to fight for their own survival, and for the survival of the people they care about. I don’t know that there’s a better encapsulation of the series’ themes than this speech.

Who is the bad guy here? Tyrion is defending Cersei and Joffrey, the biggest villains of the show so far, but we want him to survive. We want his people to survive. We want King’s Landing to avoid being sacked; we want the noble ladies not to be raped. We want Westeros to not go to hell, despite the “honorable” intentions of its leaders. There’s no good resolution here. There’s only survival. Tyrion gets that. And Dinklage nails the speech where he demonstrates that. “Those are brave men knocking on our door. Let’s go kill them!”

Yet all this doesn’t work without the formal changes of the episode. Only a handful of cast members are present, but almost every single one of them has some of their best moments. Sophie Turner gets many of her best moments as the rapidly maturing Sansa Stark, yes, but she’s matched by Sibel Kekilli, as Shae, whose fiery personality has been increasingly prominent recently. Lena Headey is also making a strong claim for “most improved” actress—her increasing desperation, combined with her rigid control over her emotions, makes her scenes some of the best of an already fantastic episode. Finally Sandor Clegane, Joffrey’s Hound, has been a background character for so long that his scenes here are something of a surprise, and a welcome one at that. It’s an odd thing for Joffrey’s right hand to say, straight up, “fuck the king,” but Rory McCann takes this, his most important line, and makes it sting.

Because Game Of Thrones focuses on the climactic event of the season, it can do this. It can make most of the characters at their most interesting. It can slowly build up the battle, and then get the battle right. I worry that this intense focus on the battle of the Blackwater will make the finale too busy. But for now, I think it’s worth basking in the glory that a single change in structure can achieve. There are many great moments to come in Game Of Thrones. An intense focus on them can break up the show’s rhythm in a remarkably positive way.

Adaptation:

George R.R. Martin wrote this episode, so even if I wanted to, it would be hard to say that “Blackwater” got anything in particular wrong. The lack of specificity to the Tyrell army's inclusion in the Lannister reinforcements is a bit of an issue—Loras in Tywin’s entourage could be missed easily, in part because it’s a surprise—but I assume this will be cleared up next week. While this season has had many issues of adaptation, “Blackwater”  is as ideal as any fan could expect.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.

GAME OF THRONES RECAP 8: THE PRINCE OF WINTERFELL

GAME OF THRONES RECAP 8: THE PRINCE OF WINTERFELL

One of the recurring discussions about this second season of Game Of Thrones concerns how much the television show is changed from the novels. While the merits of the specific changes are debatable, a running theme of both my reviews and those of other critics is that the show is more confident in its adaptation, becoming its own entity.

nullAs obvious as it might sound, we should remember that entity is a television show, and a particular form of a television show, at that: highly serialized with multiple interweaving plots, much like many of the great dramas of the last decade-plus. But the TV show-ness of Game Of Thrones works against it slightly in “The Prince Of Winterfell.” This episode leads towards the climax of the season, so it’s almost all build-up. Episodes like this are traditional in television, but they don't work so well for Game Of Thrones.

The two series associated most with the “build-up” episode are two of the most important for the current form of serialization, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The Wire. Buffy helped develop a model of the standalone episode, with clues in each week's show leading towards a larger finale each season. After a few seasons, the overarching plot became such an important part of the show that the last batch of episodes became a string of heavily serialized “mythology” episodes, barely working by themselves. The Buffy episode “The Prince Of Winterfell” reminded me most of is “The Weight Of The World,” the fifth season's penultimate episode, in which Buffy, having lost all hope and motivation, has to be emotionally wrestled back into heroic shape for the season’s climax—the emotions before the storm. While both of these episodes may be competent, they’re fairly unmemorable out of context.

Game Of Thrones is significantly more complicated than Buffy, though, taking place across multiple geographic regions, with exponentially more major characters; in this sense, it’s more similar to The Wire. The Wire’s serialization was even more focused than Buffy’s, or any other show, really. Each of its seasons was 10-13 episodes, focused generally on a component of the society of Baltimore, and specifically on a drug case worked by the main characters. Most of the season would be build-up, the second-to-last episode would contain the climax of the investigation, and then would come the finale, the denouement. Game Of Thrones mostly followed that model in the first season, and is certainly following it here: several different plotlines are leading to what should be an explosive conclusion.

Here’s the problem: Games Of Thrones is even more scattered and geographically disjointed than The Wire. While The Wire had almost as many characters and motivations to keep track of as this show, all the events were working towards the same climax: the conclusion of the drug investigation, and then the rippling effects of that climax (although, to be fair, the fourth season deviated from this specific form). In Game Of Thrones, each smaller story seems to be moving towards a different climax.

The chief upcoming event we hear discussed is Stannis’ attack on King’s Landing, the capital. This would be the biggest battle of the war so far, and a total Stannis victory might even end that war altogether. Preparing for it makes sense. Jon Snow, now captured by wildlings and being led to their king, is also clearly moving toward a climax of some kind, as is Dany, desperate to get her dragons back. And the tension is clearly escalating in Winterfell, as Theon refuses to leave with his sister, even as a northerner army approaches.

But that’s only half of the show’s stories, maybe fewer. Robb Stark’s romance may be climaxing, but its effects are unclear, as are the actions of his mother, who has released Jaime Lannister in exchange for her children, escorted by Brienne of Tarth. This is a new story thread and an interesting choice for the show to make (these events happened relatively later in the novels than they do here). Samwell Tarly and the rest of the Night’s Watch haven’t been mentioned in several episodes, but their discovery of a cache of obsidian weapons is deemed important enough to show up here. Yes, the show is moving towards something, but the important ones can’t help but be  diluted among all the other events taking place.

Three different things make the lack of action in this episode disappointing. First, last week’s episode was also relationship-heavy and event-light. It was so good that this episode pales in comparison, though of course two high points in a row isn’t always wise structurally. Second, the eighth episode of the first season, “The Pointy End,” managed to contain several different momentous events: the death of Arya’s dancing instructor; the undead attack at the Night’s Watch, Robb Stark summoning his bannermen and gaining their respect. Meanwhile, “The Prince Of Winterfell” seems intentionally non-momentous.

Why “intentionally”? The most dramatic moment of the episode occurs when Arya and her friends leave Harrenhal by walking past a bevy of dead men, all killed off-screen by Arya’s murder genie, Jaqen H’ghar. There is craft here: the build-up to this moment involves the Stark girl's desperation and cleverness, telling Jaqen to kill himself, or aid her. When he says, “A girl lacks honor,” Arya gives a quick shrug. Honor is meaningless to her. She’s trying to survive, and win. This is all good.

There’s just one tiny problem with the resolution, though: it’s not what happened in the novels. The changes the show made from the novel end up removing Arya’s agency, the importance of her actions, the intensity of the actions themselves, and not one but two of her most badass moments. There’s still some time for the show to make it up to her, I suppose, but I simply cannot fathom why it would remove arguably the best scenes of the second book . . . unless it was to deliberately rearrange events to fit a Wire-like structural framework. It doesn’t have to work that way. Game Of Thrones has so many different characters, working on a complex enough narrative, that it could have action and preparation in each episode.

Despite a disappointing lack of events and warping of Arya’s story, there was still a lot to like about “The Prince Of Winterfell.” Its theme of finding romance and comfort in the midst of war and intrigue successfully built the emotional tension in advance of the impending climax. Robb Stark’s scene with his new crush Talisa was a major step forward for this storyline. And Peter Dinklage acted the hell out of his romantic scene with Shae, showing a vulnerability only hinted at before. Additionally, Tyrion’s scenes with Varys are among the best the show has done, filled with wit, danger, foreshadowing, and charm. (“We could throw books at his men.” “We don’t have that many books.”) This demonstrates that Game Of Thrones is telling its multiple stories well. The issue is how it’s editing those stories together into a story, and into a series.

Adaptation:

In addition to the tremendously disappointing changes in the Arya Stark story, another Stark is ill-served by the adaptation. Arya's mother Cat Stark has had her agency largely removed as well, due to a couple of changes. When Littlefinger made the offer to exchange Jaime for her daughters, her decision to free Jaime was changed from one she made on her own to one she merely accepted. In the novels, Cat also made that decision after receiving the “news” of Bran and Rickon’s death; here, she’s pushed into it by the Karstarks demanding Jaime’s death after his failed escape last week. Cat Stark’s strength made her arguably my favorite character in the novels, but the show regularly weakens her.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.

GAME OF THRONES RECAP 7: A MAN WITHOUT HONOR

GAME OF THRONES RECAP 7: A MAN WITHOUT HONOR

What makes for a great Game Of Thrones episode? What stories can it tell that could put it on the rarefied level of, say, HBO’s holy trinity of The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire? I’m not sure how I would have answered this question before seeing “A Man Without Honor.” I would not have expected to say that arguably the show’s best episode would have only one major event combined with a series of dialogues. This isn’t a surprise, given that the dialogue and characters are some of the strongest components of the show, but it is somewhat odd, given how many different storylines are going on at once, that so few move directly forward.

Instead, in scene after scene, we’re shown reasons why these characters are important, and why the stakes are so high. Not many of the metaphorical poker hands are fully played out, but watching them progress gives us insight into most every major character as well as a few minor ones.

Take, for example, the centerpiece of the episode, Jaime Lannister, in his cage, talking to a cousin he barely remembers. The cousin squired for Jaime once, and clearly worships Jaime as a hero. They reminisce. They bond. Jaime supplies us with a bit of exposition, a reminder of the currently missing Barristan Selmy. They discuss their current situation. “I’m not well-suited for imprisonment.” Jaime has a plan of escape. The cousin wants to know what he can do. Jaime says “die” and then kills the man he just charmed.

There are two good reasons this scene shouldn’t work. First, it’s been done before. In the middle of the first season, Jaime talked with Ned Stark’s guard, Jory Cassel. After initially dismissing Jory, the two men ended up bonding over past war stories. Shortly afterwards, Jaime killed Jory with no regrets. For this reason, and because of the slow buildup of danger via the blocking, lighting, and music cues, Jaime’s violent turn isn’t a surprise. It's still a great scene, though.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s performance as Jaime Lannister deserves the credit here. From the beginning, he has imbued Jaime with the charisma and power that the novels tell but don’t show until much later. He’s been largely off-screen this season—there's only so much you can do when chained in a cage—but Coster-Waldau’s cheerful cynicism dominates anytime Jaime is on-screen.

Only writing this now do I realize that Jaime didn’t say much to the poor boy he promptly murdered, beyond generic platitudes. Perhaps he did remember the boy, and spoke to him as a friend because he wanted some pleasant human interaction even as Jaime planned his cousin’s murder. Perhaps he didn’t remember the lad, and simply told him what he wanted to hear in order to get him within arm’s reach. Jaime was built up as the primary villain in the first season, but here, imprisoned for months and covered in his own shit, plotting a desperate, doomed escape, he seems even more dangerous.

This may have been the standout scene of the episode, but “A Man Without Honor” is filled with one-on-one interactions, most of them good, some of them brilliant. Arya Stark’s dangerous sparring with Tywin Lannister is dramatically improved this week, after the too-farcical physical comedy last week. Instead, tonight it’s a game of wits. Seeing both Charles Dance and Maisie Williams take each other on is a joy, and further confirmation that Williams is a potential star. This is one of the show’s funniest-ever scenes, with Dance’s slight facial expressions showing how impressed he is with the girl’s audacity, and Arya just barely staying ahead of Tywin’s probing questions.

Almost every major character gets a scene where the tension of their surroundings is built and detailed. Sansa Stark continues her awkward, tense relationship with The Hound, who seems to have adopted her as a pet of his own, saying “You’ll be glad of the hateful things I do when you’re queen, and I’m all that stands between you and your beloved king.” This may be Sophie Turner’s best episode as Sansa, and it’s also the one where she’s had the most to do, as Sansa’s first period shows up, making her betrothal to Joffrey much more likely to be completed. With this known, she meets with Queen Cersei, whose odd mentoring of Sansa is even more explicit than The Hound's, thanks to Tywin’s parallel relationship with Arya Stark.

Cersei then meets with Tyrion Lannister, and finally shows vulnerability, admitting that her children were born of incest and how troubled she is by Joffrey. During the first season, I thought Lena Headey was the weakest actor in the ensemble, constantly relying on her “scrunchyface” to convey any emotion, genuine or manipulative. With a bit of vulnerability on display, Headey manages to make a scene where Tyrion and Cersei bond a bit seem honest and even sympathetic. It also serves as a reminder that Stannis, with his huge fleet and new army, is less than a week away from the capital, and close to the climax of the season.

Some of the most fun comes from the romantic comedy Beyond the Wall, where Jon Snow continues to hold the wildling Ygritte prisoner. Much like Jaime Lannister’s scene, there are lots of reasons to dislike this storyline: Ygritte’s sexual manipulations are so transparent as to be downright wacky, and the part where she argues about who owns the land struck me as overly-modern, with its anti-colonial discourse (“You lot just came along and put up a big wall and said it was yours!”). The acting, once again, helps—Rose Leslie sells both the sexuality and the wildlings’ different norms—but I think the real work is done by the location. The scenes north of the Wall were shot in Iceland, and the craggy hills, tundra, and cold, cold snow and rain imbue the apparently comic scenes with seriousness and even danger.

Also, impressively enough, several episodes in, Jon’s half-brother Robb Stark and his infatuation with the nurse Talisa has finally gotten to the point where it doesn’t stand out as the worst part of the episode. That, surprisingly, goes to Dany’s adventures in Qarth, where her pursuit of her dragons’ kidnappers leads her deeper and deeper into a storyline where she lacks agency, which she attempts to make up for by screaming, in increasingly petulant and shrill fashion. (She sounds like Mel Gibson in the commercials for Ransom, yelling “GIVE ME BACK MY DRAGONS.”) It’s disappointing given the depth Emilia Clarke brought to Danaerys in the first season.

And then Game Of Thrones tosses in a sucker punch. After an hour of scenes consisting almost exclusively of two people talking to one another, the action returns to Winterfell and Theon Greyjoy’s pursuit of the younger Stark boys. After a day of fruitless searching, Theon returns to Winterfell, claiming to have found the boys, and offers proof: two charred, dismembered children’s corpses. The grim music rises as we see that a character who began the season as a sidekick to one of the heroes is now a child-murderer. That doesn’t relieve the tension built up over the course of the episode—it hammers it in. That’s what will make Game Of Thrones worthy of inclusion in the tevevision pantheon.

Adaptation:

As far as I can tell, every single scene in this episode was significantly altered, or simply invented, compared with the novel. Robb’s, Arya’s, Dany’s, Jorah’s, and Jaime’s scenes with the cousin are totally new. Jon and Cat have had their scenes altered chronologically, and their motivations have also been changed due to alterations in previous episodes: Qhorin didn’t leave Jon with Ygritte for days in the novel, instead disappearing for a while, then returning.

Missing characters change the structure and meaning of Bran’s main scene in the episode—a friend with a premonition of the dead bodies has been deleted and has had his character merged with Osha, who doesn’t have that gift. Meanwhile, Theon’s worst impulses are being exacerbated by one of his crew, instead of by another major character (who will apparently be introduced later). Sansa’s scene with Cersei may be the only one to be relatively unchanged from the novel.

I would quibble with some of these decisions—in fact, I almost certainly will next week when we see the fallout from Cat’s confrontation of Jaime—but overall, I think this marks a turning point for Game Of Thrones as an adaptation. It has fully detached itself from the source material. It still uses the books' themes, characters, and overall story, but it now has the confidence to be tell that story in its own fashion.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.

GAME OF THRONES RECAP 6: THE OLD GODS AND THE NEW

GAME OF THRONES RECAP 6: THE OLD GODS AND THE NEW

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Game Of Thrones is getting exciting again.

nullOne of the show’s defining features has always been its class system, which boils over in The Old Gods and the New. It’s painful for the people who live in that system. A butcher’s boy, like Micah, Arya’s friend from early in the first season, can be slaughtered at the whim of a prince. There’s not much room for class mobility, either. This has led to a focus on the most powerful in the Seven Kingdoms, since they’re the ones who drive the story, which makes the show seem to have a blind spot surrounding any character who doesn’t have a title. That all changes in this episode.

First, Theon Greyjoy captures Bran Stark and Winterfell, betraying the family that raised him for half his life as well as a king he swore allegiance to. Why? Theon’s torn between his blood father and his adopted brother: “I’m a Greyjoy. I can’t fight for Robb and your father at the same time.” He chooses his father, now-King Balon Greyjoy, because that way gives him the opportunity to become a prince, even a king, as long as he impresses his father. If he stays with Robb, he’s unlikely to rise above his current means.

Theon’s ambition makes him look pathetic, which Game Of Thrones plays up. A quick attack with his ironborn takes Winterfell while its troops are away, and Theon comes in expecting to be treated as a conquering prince. Instead, Bran Stark can’t believe that someone he grew up with, someone who saved his life recently, would turn into an enemy. Alfie Allen plays Theon’s confused posturing well, first in the scene with Bran, then in a scene where he tries to force Maester Luwin, then Ser Rodrik to acknowledge him as the lord of the castle. When the latter goes poorly, Theon’s entertainingly pathetic attempts at macho posturing turn horrifying, as he beheads Ser Rodrik in front of everyone.

While Theon may be trying to make his life as a noble better, Danaerys negotiates with the merchants of Qarth for ships to conquer the Seven Kingdoms with, more specifically addressing the issue of class mobility. Her ally, Xaro Xhaon Daxos, argues with his rival, the Spice King, about their origins. The Spice King’s grandfather was poor, his family having worked its way into wealth, while Xaro did the work himself. Meanwhile, Dany’s prime claim to power is her bloodline, and she justifies her entitlement by declaring that her dreams become reality, as they did with her dragons.

Oddly, the arguments used in this scene, particularly by the Spice King, seem particularly anachronistic. He claims that he’s ruled by logic, and he says “I make my trades based on the merits.” These entirely modern arguments stand out from most justifications used by other characters, like Ned Stark’s honor, or Cersei Lannister’s naked grabs at power. Nicholas Blane’s scenery-chewing performance as the Spice King is a delight, yes, but the scene’s attachment to modern tropes gets in the way of its drama.

The Old Gods And The New takes on class envy more directly in King’s Landing. The court sees Princess Myrcella off to Dorne, but on the way back, the people of the city get angry, with one of them throwing trash that hits Joffrey, who immediately escalates the situation into violence. Sansa Stark gets dragged away before being rescued by The Hound. As her handmaiden Shae cleans her, Sansa wonders why one of the men hates her so much. Shae responds: “Your horse eats better than his children.”

We’ve seen Game Of Thrones deal with the effects of war and chaos on its families and individual characters, but it hasn’t depicted those effects on the commoners very well. To be fair, a great deal of this has to do with issues of adaptation. There are only so many actors to hire, and only so many sets or locations to film on. Depicting the burnt-out farmlands of the Riverlands is far easier on a printed page or two than on an expensive show, and it doesn’t literally advance the story. This is part of the reason Littlefinger’s brothel has been used so prominently. Roz’s emotional collapse after the murder of the baby a few episodes back wasn’t just another way to demonstrate how nasty Littlefinger is, but also a way to show how ugly the city becomes as the nobles play their violent games.

That, combined with the appearance of the anti-Joffrey preacher last week, helps set up tonight’s riot as an organic development. The war isn’t just a game of nobles—it creates refugees and burns the crops they need to eat. This was, if you’ll recall, the Lannister strategy when the conflict began, late in the first season. But there are unintended consequences.

North of The Wall, Jon Snow has his first encounter with one of the “free folk,” as his new friend Ygritte calls herself. Yet as free as she may claim to be, she still follows the King-Beyond-The-Wall, wich also makes her an enemy of the Watch. The Watch is one of the few groups in Westeros that looks even slightly egalitarian, with promotions by merit, but still, Jon is somewhat tempted by Ygritte’s promises of freedom. Well, he’s probably more tempted by other charms—Rose Leslie as Ygritte is both dangerous and flirtatious, and it’s fun to watch.

Less fun: Jon’s brother Robb discovers girls as well. His romance with Tylisa remains as stilted as it was a few episodes ago, not surprising since it’s so detached from everything else going on (although the arrival of Catelyn and Brienna may change that). A bigger surprise: the episode’s weakest scene involves Arya, Tywin, and Littlefinger. Since Lord Baelish can recognize her, Arya tries to hide her identity, resulting in a farcical scene where she moves repeatedly to point her face away from his line of sight.

Turning Arya’s disguise into a sitcom trope is a misstep. Fortunately, the rest of the episode works around its few minor errors: the scenes at Winterfell and King’s Landing are particularly strong. The show gets better as its characters start to reach the point of no return. Theon Greyjoy has passed that point, and the other characters are approaching it.

Adaptation:

My belief that many of the show’s best scenes were invented for the show takes a beating tonight. The Spice King was specifically invented for the show, making his anachronistic conversation even more baffling. The problematic scenes with Dany, Arya, and Robb were all fabrications. Some of the better scenes, it turns out, were those that were adapted. (A more amusing anachronism: Jaime Lannister is dyslexic, but Tywin forced him learn to read conventionally anyway.)

The thing I’m most concerned about is the show’s altering of events to change motivations. In the novel, Qhorin Halfhand deliberately allows Jon to let Ygritte go, and Jon immediately returns—there’s no chase scene, no initial seduction. This has happened several times, like with Littlefinger offering to exchange Jaime for Cat’s daughters. In many cases, in attempting to be simpler, Game Of Thrones makes its story more confusing.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.

GAME OF THRONES RECAP 5: THE GHOST OF HARRENHAL

GAME OF THRONES RECAP 5: THE GHOST OF HARRENHAL

 
One of the most appealing things about Game Of Thrones as a fantasy narrative is the lack of magic at the core of its story. Magic exists on the outskirts of the world—Danaerys in the Dothraki Sea with her dragons, Jon Snow and the Others beyond, at the wall—but the bulk of the story, taking place in the Seven Kingdoms, has entirely revolved around human concerns. “Fantasy” as a genre usually means Tolkien-esque heroic quests, filled with prophecies, gods, and wizards, making Game Of Thrones’ focus on entirely human-scale drama a breath of fresh air. All that disappears in tonight’s episode, when Melisandre’s shadow Stannis assassinates King Renly.

nullThe increased importance of Stannis and Renly as characters had built up dramatic potential in previous episodes. Both opposed the Lannisters, and both were sympathetic in many respects. But they also disdained Robb Stark’s claim as King In The North, and were more than willing to fight one another, proving that petty ambition mixed with righteous certainty could be a poisonous combination. That balance is gone, thanks to Melisandre, whose magical ability shattered the rules that govern Game Of Thrones’ world. It feels disappointing, more like a narrative cheat than a fascinating narrative twist. Out of nowhere, an interesting, major character like Renly is simply removed from the board. It feels like it breaks the rules of this world, which is negative, as opposed to Ned’s death, which was positive (if shocking) because it violated the expectations of narrative.

Despite the problematic nature of Renly’s death, it does help tie “Ghost Of Harrenhal” together. Arya Stark puts it best, if a little bit too blatantly: “Anyone can be killed.” The episode’s title comes from an alliance between Arya and Jaqen H’ghar, the odd foreign man she rescued from chains in the midst of a battle two episodes ago. Jaqen promises Arya three deaths for the three lives she saved. With her first, she asks for the torturer known as “The Tickler” to die, which happens. “The Ghost Of Harrenhal” is a pre-pubescent girl, acquainted with violence well beyond her years.

The chaos unleashed by the war and intrigue of Game Of Thrones doesn’t kill just “anyone,” though. It’s primarily the men that die. In some cases, it turns women into warriors. Arya Stark has killed before, stabbing a stable boy who attempted to capture her in the first season. Now she’s a righteous ghost, assassinating the most evil men when they hold too much power.

Brienne of Tarth, the show’s other female warrior, gets the spotlight in this episode. Serving as Renly’s guard when he gets assassinated by Melisandre’s shadow, she is instantly blamed for Renly’s death and is forced to kill two knights. She and Catelyn flee, and eventually, Brienne, confused about her future and shocked by Renly’s death, swears her allegiance to her fellow fugitive. It’s a wonderful little scene, about how war destroys the social order. The patriarchs—Renly and Ned, in this case—are dead, so these two women re-enact one of the strongest bonds of Westerosi patriarchy, the knighthood ceremony. Brienne’s confusion, and her immediate attachment to Cat’s strength, are more over the top than Gwendolyn Christie, but it works in the end: she really was that loyal to Renly, and that shaken up by his death. That scene appears below.

Two other women are thrust into power by death during this episode. Margaery Tyrell, with her husband dead and many of his lords transferring their loyalty to Stannis, has choices to make. Littlefinger approaches her and asks: “Do you want to be a queen?” “No. I want to be the queen.” His sly smile suggests a plan, and with Margaery embodying the powerful, wealthy House Tyrell on Game Of Thrones, this could be interesting as it develops.

There’s also Dany, a woman thrust into power by the deaths of two patriarchs: her brother Viserys, the former heir to the Targaryen crown, and her husband Drogo, the Dothraki Khal. Dany’s name, connections, and dragons maintain some level of power for her. But with only the power of influence, she has to negotiate constantly to maintain it, while increasing her more direct forms of power. I like where the show is going with Danaerys in Qarth. The city and its people are off-putting: her host proposes marriage, a warlock performs apparent magic for her, and a strange woman with her face almost entirely covered by a scaled mask talks to Ser Jorah. There’s a strong connection between the oddness of Dany’s surroundings and the precariousness of her situation. The foreign nature of Dany’s location of the story acts as an interesting balance to the more conventional culture of the Seven Kingdoms.

Anyone can be killed in the world of Game Of Thrones for any reason now, including magic. And while I may dislike the magical assassination that drives “The Ghost Of Harrenhal,” this is a story about the effects of war and death. If anyone can die, then anyone can pick up the pieces. And if it’s always the men who die, the pieces are left for the women.

Adaptation:

Many of the best scenes in “The Ghost Of Harrenhal” were actually taken primarily from the novels, like Catelyn and Brienne’s exchange, instead of being created for the show. There were a few minor changes, but seeing Littlefinger start negotiating with Margaery and demonstrating the specificity of her ambition to become queen was the only major change.

The most successfully adapted scene, though, was in Winterfell, as Bran filled in as lord with more confidence, quickly responding to petitioners with apparently beneficial effects, as when he sent two orphans to help an overburdened shepherd. Bran is probably the character who has been treated the worst in the adaptation from page to screen, as most of his chapters were primarily internal monologues, as he comes to terms with his injury as well as his connection to his direwolf. It may be a little late, but it’s a demonstration that Game Of Thrones remembers that there are important characters and places away from the front lines.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.

GAME OF THRONES RECAP 4: GARDEN OF BONES

GAME OF THRONES RECAP 4: GARDEN OF BONES

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Garden Of Bones was perhaps my least favorite episode of Game Of Thrones, period. The show has been such a success that seeing it struggle so much is a surprise. It’s still competent and watchable, but Garden Of Bones was frayed at the edges.

nullThe novel this season of Game Of Thrones is based on is called A Clash Of Kings, which makes the story clear: that of the civil war that followed Cersei’s coup and Ned’s execution. Despite the presence of multiple kings, none of them have “clashed” directly, either with blades or with words. Ever since the trailer showed bits and pieces of Stannis’ confrontation with Renly, I’ve been waiting for this scene, prepared to do an in-depth analysis of how it demonstrated the show’s themes surrounding power and legitimacy. Instead, what I got was an example of what’s wrong with Garden Of Bones, which could also make bigger problems for the show in the future.

Watch the scene here:

Two narrative questions arise immediately with the scene: why are Stannis and Renly fighting each other, and where are they fighting? Game Of Thrones’ issues with geography are highlighted here: we don’t know where Renly’s camp is, so we don’t know why this confrontation is meaningful. Shouldn’t Renly be surprised that his brother is attacking him, instead of the Lannisters? But there’s no buildup in either case—previous scenes from Renly’s camp are about the presence of Littlefinger, and it’s the first time in the episode we see Stannis at all. The stakes of this meeting are as high as any we’ve seen in the show, and instead, it’s confusing. 

Clarity has been lost in the translation from the page to the screen. In the novel, location questions are clearly answered. Renly has the strength of two of the Seven Kingdoms, Stannis, one weak kingdom. So Stannis launches a surprise attack against Renly’s capital, which makes Renly stop his march against Joffrey in the capital. There are both strategic and character-based reasons for the confrontation. The location is unclear, which tends to be when Game Of Thrones is at its weakest. (This is worsened in the episode’s final scene, when Davos smuggles Melisandre . . . somewhere?)

Once the characters start speaking, the confrontation becomes more he-said-she-said than tense and meaningful. Stannis makes small talk with Catelyn, she responds. Renly teases Stannis, he responds. More teasing, and Melisandre responds. It sounds a little bit like a radio play, where the actors record their lines in a studio at different times. This may be an intentional choice by the director: the Baratheon brothers have never gone to war with one another, so perhaps Game Of Thrones is portraying their internal struggle as externally stilted.

And it rings falsely. The worst offender is Cat Stark, whose “Listen to yourselves. If you were sons of mine I would knock your heads together until you remembered that you were brothers” is monumentally misguided (though the line is from the novel, it’s taken almost entirely out of context here). So far this season, Catelyn has been the voice of reason, telling Robb that sending Theon to Pyke was a bad idea, and recognizing Renly’s “summer knights” last week.  Here she comes across as peevish and undiplomatic, ruining whatever tiny chance this meeting had at being good for the realm.

Stephen Dillane’s performance as Stannis also leaves something to be desired. He’s supposed to be rigid, so certain of his claim to the throne that he doesn’t comprehend anything else. But what comes across is confusion and boredom. He tells Renly, “You think a few bolts of cloth will make you king?” and tilts his head like a cat. There’s no anger here, nor really anywhere in the entire scene, which would help it make more sense.

Some drama is salvaged at the end, after Stannis delivers an ultimatum. Melisandre turns to Renly and says, “Look to your sins, Lord Renly. The night is dark and full of terrors.” This is the first thing that gives any of the four characters speaking in the scene any pause, as Renly finally realizes the implications of the civil war he’s engaging in.

This scene isn’t the only weak one in Garden Of Bones. Robb Stark returns to our screen, winning a battle and then dealing with the aftermath. First he meets with one of his bannermen, a flaying-happy Lord Roose Bolton, then he meets a woman aiding the injured. I suppose we’re supposed to see some romantic chemistry here, but it comes across as just one more thing to keep track of.

Littlefinger’s visit to King Renly’s camp was dull as well. Why he’s there is never made clear—is he upset at Tyrion’s withdrawn promise of a new lordship? And how long did it take him to get to the camp? Is Renly so close to the capital? His scene with Margaery Tyrell frustrates as well. He bothers her about Renly’s sexuality, but this is such an ill-kept secret that Lannister soldiers were joking about it at the start of the episode. And there’s no real conclusion to the episode, simply Melisandre giving “birth” to something supernatural. It’s ominous, but detached from the story. Garden Of Bones has no narrative arc.

The other half of the episode does far better. Dany’s introduction to the city of Qarth, “the greatest city that ever was and ever will be,” gives it an immediate sense of place. Tyrion’s attempts to combat the worst impulses of Cersei and Joffrey are as entertaining and tense as ever, and he gets the line of the night with, “That was a threat. See the difference!” And Arya’s introduction to the Lannister stronghold of Harrenhal is ominous enough before she gets invited to be Lord Tywin Lannister’s cup-bearer. Garden Of Bones lays the groundwork for dramatic things to happen later with Robb Stark, Danaerys discovering Qarth, and Arya in the belly of the Lannister beast, but it’s worrying that the episode botches the most important scene of the season .

Adaptation:

Littlefinger’s presence in Renly’s camp at this point is a huge deviation from the novels, possibly the biggest of the series to date. It’s also an entirely negative deviation. The scene with Margaery was unpleasant. It’s his explicit offer to Cat from Tyrion that changes things the most, although most of that will take place in the future.

On the brighter side, I’m all for Arya interacting with Tywin Lannister, something that didn’t happen in A Clash Of Kings. And the depiction of Joffrey’s sociopathy, forcing prostitutes hired by Tyrion to beat each other for his pleasure, was different from the page in a way that was fairly necessary, since it had been shown previously via memory.

Still, I can’t help but compare the Stannis/Renly confrontation and shake my head at the missed opportunity. In the book, Renly eats a peach in the middle of it, adding an air of symbolic ambiguity that haunts Stannis afterward. There’s no peach on-screen, even though it probably would be better visually. And poor Cat looking like an idiot compared to lines like this:

“This is folly,” Catelyn said sharply. “Lord Tywin sits at Harrenhal with twenty thousand swords. The remnants of the Kingslayer’s army have regrouped at the Golden Tooth, another Lannister host gathers beneath the shadow of Casterly Rock, and Cersei and her son hold King’s Landing and your precious Iron Throne. You each name yourself king, yet the kingdom bleeds, and no one lifts a sword to defend it but my son.”

Where was this depth on the screen?

http://www.hbo.com/bin/hboPlayerV2.swf?vid=1249940

 

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.