Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Game of Thrones, Season 2

By a lot of conventional yardsticks, the second season of Game of Thrones is less successful than its first.  It lacks the commanding, gravitational figure of Ned Stark at its center, and the strong throughline of his investigation into the death of his predecessor as Hand of the King and the maiming of his son.  It's a more diffuse narrative, flitting between an ever-increasing number of locations and characters, and not properly a story at all.  Most of the season is spent laying the groundwork for a single battle in a war in which no side has a particularly strong claim on the audience's sympathies, and that battle turns out to be not only far from decisive, but perhaps not even very important in the grand scheme of things.  And yet it can't be denied that the second season of Game of Thrones is better and more engaging than the first, that over the course of its ten episodes the pull of its narrative, of the various clans warring for control of Westeros and the two forces massing against it in the East and the North, only grows stronger.  That as each episode, and finally the season finale, roll their credits one is increasingly consumed by the desire to know what happens next.

It's that impulse, I think, that is at the heart of Game of Thrones's success, and whose wholehearted embrace in its second season is the main reason that it outstrips its first.  I had an inkling of this already when I read the first book in George R.R. Martin's series, A Game of Thrones.  I disliked the book and was glad to see the end of it, but still when I turned the last page I felt a flicker of the desire to read the next book all the same--not because I thought Martin's prose or his characters would improve on me, but simply to know what was going to happen.  It's a soap opera impulse, a craving for pure, continuous narrative whose purpose is less to arrive at a single, fixed endpoint as it is simply to keep going.  This is not to say that Game of Thrones is a soap in the vein of Heroes, distracting viewers from the paucity of its story by delivering a constant barrage of twists and revelations.  On the contrary, the show is actually at its worst when it attempts these sorts of narrative tricks, handling them in a surprisingly ham-handed fashion--the "discovery," at the end of "The Prince of Winterfell," that the two corpses presented at the end of the previous episode, "A Man Without Honor," are not those of the two youngest Stark brothers, which the audience will surely have assumed anyway; the way that "Blackwater" ends with the question of whether Sansa Stark will accept the deserting Sandor Clegane's offer of escape from King's Landing under his protection, then resolves it in the most anticlimactic fashion in the next episode by cutting to her in the middle of a scene with a completely different topic to show that she hasn't left; worst of all, the way the season finale, "Valar Morghulis," seems to imply that the castle of Winterfell was sacked by twenty fleeing men while a liberating army of 500 stood outside and watched, but which, when one reads about the events of the books, turns out to have been intended as a cliffhanger for next season, which will resolve the mystery of who sacked Winterfell--a mystery so poorly established that most people watching the show without prior knowledge will not even be aware that it exists.

Game of Thrones's soap storylines work when they proceed logically and obviously from what came before, like a train track being laid down one tie after another.  Arguably the most stunning moment of the series, the execution of Ned Stark, is after all effective precisely because it proceeds so logically from what came before it--from Ned's naivete, from the viciousness and desperation of those arrayed against him, and from the sadism of the boy-king Joffrey, who holds Ned's life in his hands.  It's precisely the absence of a surprising, last-minute twist that makes this moment so powerful, allowing it to establish the kind of story that Game of Thrones is telling and the kind of world it is set in--one in which what happens next is interesting not so much because it is surprising, but because there are so many players and moving pieces in the system that, for all that each individual interaction usually proceeds along predictable lines, the cumulative effect is chaotic.

If you approach Game of Thrones as the story of the Starks and their travails, or the story of the war for the Iron Throne, or even the story of how Westeros was attacked by zombies, a lot of it seems baggy and beside the point.  What the first season of the show suggested, however, and the second has cemented, is that Game of Thrones is actually the story of its world, in which all of these stories, and many others, are happening.  By its nature, this is a story without purpose or end, one that can only diffuse rather than converge, which is why the second season often feels like a collection of digressions--Theon's betrayal or Robb and his conquest of Winterfell, Arya's stay at Harrenhall and encounter with the assassin Jaqen H'ghar, Catelyn's decision to send Brienne with Jamie to King's Landing and trade him for Arya and Sansa.  (This, by the way, is the reason that Jon and Daenerys's storylines this season fall so flat--because neither of these characters are suited to soap opera storytelling.  The deposed princess who has great power and the nameless orphan who might the world's last hope belong in purposeful stories with a definite endpoint--the kind that Game of Thrones can't, or at least can't yet, give them.)  When those digressions work, they are worthwhile in their own right--if Game of Thrones is a train ride, it's one best enjoyed for the scenery, not the destination--but the cumulative effect of watching the series not because one hopes to reach an ending, but simply to find out what happens next, is that the entire exercise can start to seem a little weightless.  Yes, season two was very exciting and engaging while we were watching it, but looking back, how much actually happened in it, and how much of that was actually important?

One way of counteracting this weightlessness is to use the show's many diverging and proliferating storylines to illustrate and elaborate its central themes--the corrupting influence of power, the inherent unfairness of a system that gives one group of people absolute power over another, against which the relative benevolence of one or another ruler is insignificant, and the cruel exploitation of women, in particular, in these kinds of hereditary patriarchies.  These are all themes that Game of Thrones hits repeatedly, but by the end of the second season that repetition reveals an uncomfortable truth--that the show doesn't really have much to say about any of these, actually quite self-evident, topics.  After a while, the constant barrage of examples of how it sucks to be a peasant, or a women, or a woman who is a peasant, in a feudal patriarchy, starts to seem less like driving home a point and more like misery porn (which, on this show, is often indistinguishable from regular porn).  The solution would be to focus the show's stories on its disadvantaged and disenfranchised characters, to make them people rather than receptacles for abuse and humiliation, but even when Game of Thrones gestures in this direction, it holds back.  In "The Old Gods and the New," there are two scenes in which child characters are gently rebuked for taking the loyalty of their servants, even under extreme circumstances, for granted.  When Theon takes Winterfell, Bran is shocked that the servant Osha offers Theon her service, despite the fact that Osha is a Wildling who only a few months ago was brought to Winterfell in chains by Bran's brother.  When Sansa exclaims to her handmaiden Shae that she hates Joffrey, Shae cautions her never to assume that a servant can be trusted implicitly.  But both servants do turn out to be loyal, to a self-sacrificing degree.  Osha is gaming Theon, and later prostitutes herself and risks her life in order to get Bran and his younger brother Rickon out of the captured Winterfell.  Shae not only keeps Sansa's thoughts about Joffrey to herself, but later goes to great lengths and almost compromises herself trying to keep the secret that Sansa has begun menstruating and is eligible to marry Joffrey.  For all that it keeps telling us that the game of thrones takes its heaviest toll on those who can't even play it, there is no instance of a servant or peasant character realizing this, or wondering why they should be expected to put themselves out, and even risk their lives, for the sake of the aristocratic main characters.

There's a similar schematic, dehumanizing impulse at work in the show's treatment of its female characters.  Though the second season proliferates these considerably, they eventually come to seem like markers on a spectrum, talking points in an argument that Game of Thrones is having about femininity, rather than people in their own right.  You've got women who step away from femininity entirely, like Brienne, Arya, and Yara; women who are outwardly feminine while rejecting the frivolous pursuits of those other, silly girls, like Talisa; women who, to varying degrees, take advantage of their sexuality in conjunction with other, less traditionally feminine skills, like Ygritte, Osha, Melisandre, and even Shae; and women who exist entirely in the feminine sphere, who operate and draw their power solely from their position as wives and mothers (or as potential wives and mothers).  In theory, such a broad spectrum should be an opening for a wide-ranging and interesting discussion, but as this post argues, many of these characters have suffered a considerable loss of agency in the transition from page to screen that seems aimed at denigrating the last of these groups, and with it, "girly" femininity, without ever stopping to consider how problematic such an approach is.  "Traditional" femininity's most prominent representative in the second season is the increasingly bitter and toxic Cersei, who spends the season's penultimate episode, "Blackwater," getting drunk and cracking jokes about how, if Stannis Baratheon's forces take King's Landing, the women hiding with her in the castle "will be in for a bit of a rape."  Women like Catelyn, who stands as Cersei's opposite in almost every respect, most of all in drawing her power from an almost de-sexualized, matronly demeanor, and Margaery Tyrell, who is only beginning the process of shopping for a good marriage and might have made an interesting third on a triangle whose other points are Cersei and Sansa, are sidelined almost entirely, which results in a season that ends up dividing its female characters into good and bad women, based almost entirely on how feminine and/or sexualized they are.

The only character who escapes this fate is Sansa.  It took me a while to embrace this, but Sansa has emerged as my favorite character of the season, and the only one whose story I felt interested in not because of what was happening in it but because of who it was happening to.  My reticence was rooted in the fact that for a sizable portion of the season it seemed that Sansa's purpose on the show was to suffer beautifully.  Her unattractive qualities from the first season--her childish selfishness, cowardice, and the wholehearted embrace of romantic fairy tales that leads her to ignore the grim reality of the family she's gleefully marrying into--are toned down considerably, and she's subjected to a host of abuses and humiliations--from being forced to view the severed head of her father by the boy who had it removed, to nearly being raped--which she endures with stoic equanimity.  But after a few episodes I realized that I found Sansa not just pitiable, but interesting.  One of the pitfalls of soap opera storytelling is that it flattens its character, who become compelling because of the things they do or that are done to them, not for their personalities, which remain static and obvious.  Sansa, on the other hand, is a deliberately opaque character.  Her life depends on seeming loyal and devoted to Joffrey, but for most of the season it's hard to tell where genuine devotion ends and performance begins.  Is Sansa truly naive, holding on to the princess stories she grew up with in the belief that they reflect reality, or is she playing innocent in order to seem harmless?  Is she consciously manipulating Joffrey, as when she persuades him not to kill a knight who has displeased him in the season premiere, or simply parroting ideas about courtly chivalry that happen to hit home?  Is she truly taking in Cersei's poisonous ideas about what it is to be a woman, or inwardly rejecting them?  Sansa's total commitment to the performance of docile, devoted femininity makes for a fascinating puzzle for the viewers, whose ultimate answer must be that she herself doesn't entirely know the answers.  (Sophie Turner should be commended for committing to that performance as well, only rarely allowing us to see beneath its surface.  It's a choice that makes for an unshowy--and at points almost unsympathetic--turn that might get her overlooked when the season's MVPs are tallied up, but she deserves kudos for her work.)  It also goes some way towards redeeming the season's otherwise schematic treatment of female characters, who on a meta level seem almost to be putting on a pageant for Sansa's benefit, as the only female on the show who hasn't decided what kind of woman she wants to be.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said of Tyrion.  Despite standing as the second season's closest equivalent to a lead character, Tyrion doesn't escape the flattening effect of soap opera storytelling.  He ostensibly has an arc over the course of the season, proving himself a canny political operator as Hand of the King, developing a taste for politics, and spearheading the defense of King's Landing against Stannis's forces--only to have all his power snatched away by his father and sister when the danger has passed.  The problem is that Game of Thrones is too in love with Tyrion, with his clever quips, sarcasm, and tendency to be the smartest guy in the room (not to mention his propensity for slapping the odious Joffrey).  There's not so much an arc or a progression to Tyrion's political acumen as there is the establishment, already in the season premiere, that he is much smarter and more capable than all the people he's dealing with.  His success feels like a forgone conclusion, which not only invalidates the idea of his having an arc, but makes the rest of the cast--particularly Tywin Lannister, who over the rest of the season is established as a shrewd person who doesn't suffer fools or incompetence--look stupid, both for discounting Tyrion before he becomes Hand, and for dismissing him after King's Landing is saved.

Of course, the reason that Tywin, Cersei, and so many others discount Tyrion is because he's a dwarf, but Game of Thrones's frustrating vagueness in depicting that prejudice undermines what should have been Tyrion's defining character arc--his discovery that all of the prejudices held against him are wrong, and that his realizing this doesn't make the people around him less likely to be prejudice against him.  In the world of Game of Thrones, Tyrion's dwarfism should class him as an un-person, someone who is only allowed to participate in society because he was fortunate enough to have been born to a rich, powerful family.  He should be subject to a constant barrage of abuse, both thoughtless and malicious, but instead almost everyone who meets Tyrion takes his condition entirely in stride.  Compare that absence of overt prejudice to the way that Brienne is casually humiliated by Stark soldiers in the season finale, even though she's a knight and they're common soldiers, just for being a woman.  Or the way that no one on the show is able to say as much as two sentences to or about Varys without making some scandalized, prurient reference to his missing genitals.  For a show whose depictions of misogyny and sexual violence are often justified on the grounds of "realism," this unrealistic absence is baffling, but even worse, it serves to neuter Tyrion's character.  Without a lifetime of overt prejudice to explain Tyrion's self-loathing and feelings of inferiority, we're left with the simple fact that the smartest, most capable character on the show (who is also played by its most charismatic actor) is treated like trash by everyone around him--including characters who are supposed to be smart themselves--and is at best half-hearted in protest of this abuse.  It's not convincing behavior, and it leaves Tyrion himself, and his slow growth towards greater self-esteem, feeling groundless.

Lacking either well-developed themes or--with the exception of Sansa--rounded characters, Game of Thrones falls into the pitfall of soap opera storytelling.  It is enormously, addictively, compulsively watchable, but also easily set aside.  Last night, when I finished watching the season finale, I wanted nothing more than for the story to continue.  Tonight I'm less eager.  Tomorrow I probably won't care.  This isn't a fatal flaw, to be certain--next year, when the third season starts, I'll surely be caught up and compelled to watch yet again.  But it's hard not to feel that Game of Thrones takes itself a little more seriously than is justified by the kind of story it's telling.  This isn't high drama, or a meaningful statement about history, fantasy, or the space between them (or if it the latter, then the statement has been made and is now simply being repeated with minor variations).  It's a story about beautiful, rich people squabbling over something that none of them deserve or could hold on to for very long, and no doubt setting themselves up for years--generations, maybe--of strife, betrayals, short-lived alliances, and strange bedfellows.  In other words, a soap opera.

8 comments:

belledame said...

i have to think about this one for awhile. having read four of the five published books, i think the points that strike me as off-kilter are based on a deeper understanding of the characters. it isn't difficult to keep the book and show separate, it just isn't something i tend to do. there were just enough alterations to the show's story that i felt it was a similar story to the book, but different.

i didn't notice a lack of prejudice toward tyrion this season. the name 'halfman' follows him right into the finale, and the derision of cousin lancel is downright venomous. but tyrion is the hand of the king and people have to watch their step. only people who think they have an in with him - or those outside the kingdoms laws - disrespect him outright. pretty much people in favor with cersei and joffrey.

hm... are we allowed to reference the later books here? i don't want to go saying too much.

i will say though, that series isn't compulsively readable only for the sake of what happens next. many of us are on the hook for the fulfillment of the prophecy of azor ahai's return (whom show-stannis is proclaimed to be) and that person's role in the war against the others coming with the winter. this is seeded throughout the novels and revealed a little at a time. but it seems to be an epic battle worth thousands of pages of reading. westeros' eruption into chaos seems to be a key step in bringing the right forces to power in order to meet the cold menace in the north. that's what keeps me reading, the thread of destiny over several of the characters.

season 2 does not match the corresponding book for depth and development. ten hours just isn't enough time.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm not being particularly fastidious about keeping spoiler-free - I knew several of the main plot points of this season going in, for example, just from following the conversation surrounding the show. But on the other hand, I don't take the books as a supplement to the show, or a counterargument to points made about the show. This is in part, of course, because I didn't care for the first book and am enjoying the show, but even if that weren't the case, the series has to stand on its own.

It's interesting that you've noted the azor ahai story as an example of a conclusion you're looking forward to, since from what I've read that's a Daenerys plot, and Daenerys is, as I've noted here, one of the characters who doesn't belong in the soap format.

Kit said...

The failure to deal with the situation of the servants is especially frustrating given how effectively the Mirri Maz Duur plotline addressed it last season. Possibly it's because there was no comparable plotline with Osha or Shae in the books, but given how willing the writers seem to be to make changes I don't think that would have stopped them if they wanted to confront the issue. The show has never been able to handle women very competently, but it's depressing to think they've actually slid backwards in terms of viewing everything from the perspective of the nobility. Talisa gives lip service to the idea that the interests of the common people don't align with that of the nobles, but every time we see one of them exhibit some actual agency it's on behalf of a noble or they're trying to rape Sansa.

And I agree completely about the everyone-milling-around-to-no-purpose soap opera problem. It's a bit like watching live news coverage, actually- events that seem hugely important this week turn out to be completely trivial and irrelevant next week. The task of a historian or a good documentary maker would be to weave this string of arbitrary events into some sort of narrative and pull some common themes out of it, but the writers don't seem to be up to the challenge. There's really no excuse, considering that a) they're covering fictional events, which presumably started out with some narrative which they have lost somewhere in the production process and b) they know about five years of the future, which should make it easier to put things in perspective.

I'm starting to root for Tywin just because his scenes seem to involve the least wandering around in circles. He's evil, but at least he isn't irritating.

Foxessa said...

When Game of Thrones first came out (the book, way back in 1996, 5 years at least before 9/11 changed the world, and not for the better! not HBO series, I declared that the most interesting, and the most original character that Martin had come up with was Sansa. I was digitally horsewhipped. How could I dare to find anything interesting in this stupid 11-year old girly girl who is so MEAN to her properly girly rejecting younger sister.

Sansa is one of the very few characters in this series who authentically has an arc of change and development, and it began already in A Game of Thrones. Almost all the other characters are single-dimensional, they do not change or grow or do anything surprising, and that is particularly true of Cersie and Tyrion. Others become strange monsters (will not mention because spoilers).

I still believe that author and showrunners really dislike and distrust women -- only Arya is free from that because she's still too young, so she's non-gendered, thus more BOY default, than girl. But what happens when she (and the actress) cross into nubility -- the stage that the interstate domestic slave traders called 'likely,' meaning capable of breeding.

Even Sansa and Brienne get humiliated over and over and over in ever more graphic and extended ways in both books and the show.

Anonymous said...

One theme that's raised on your blog repeatedly is the role of gender, especially women. I'm glad I live in a time when men and women are more free to be equals and share life as equals. I'd agree that people can be petty and jealous at times, using race, religion, gender or some difference as a means to put the other down and compete. Men and women can help and support one another, bring out the best in each other, and cinema can reflect this.

Another theme I find, is that of being autonomous versus being a victim, and no matter how much we've been hurt by another, at some point we have to take responsibility for being good, or noble if you will, in spite of our losses. The character of Kira Nerys from DS9 comes to mind, in that at times (but not always) she is able to help others, be the Starfeet ideal, despite past wrongs (such as the episode "Duet" or when Kira helps free Cardassia from the Dominion). Holding onto pain and blame is not enough, finding a way to move past (even with difficulty) and build something better and inclusive is.

Regards,

Dean
Vancouver, BC
Note: I didn't see my first comment appear, so I'm trying again. Please delete if this is a re-posting. Thanks!

greyfoot said...

I just finished the second season of GoT, and, like Prometheus, your review closely resembles mine. The entire thing, while “engaging” and “entertaining” for sure, simply lacks any real focus. It honestly is a soap opera. Perhaps the implied intention is to excuse this element because the whole story is so very long and vast, but this intention fails. The best example (and my second biggest problem) is in the character of Daenerys; her storyline does indeed “fall flat” not only in the second season, but also the first, because other than just a few anecdotal mentions (let’s just make an exception for the foiled assassination plot) there is nothing emotional or tangible to tie her to the rest of the characters. She may as well have her own show. Shae seems like a convenient tool, an Achilles heel for Tyrion, and so I’ve never cared for her. And Jon Snow’s almost ignored exploits are what lead to my biggest criticism: the whole series BEGAN with this supernatural threat from the northern wastes. But we don’t even get another glimmer of it until mid-and-end-second season. So…in a fantasy series, where the fuck is the fantasy?

Again, I haven’t read the books, so I might be missing some information in the adaptation process, but I disagree about Tyrion. I read and watch a lot of fiction, and as a reader and viewer, one of the most irritating, lazy and hackneyed narrative devices I’m forced to choke on is prejudice. This, in my opinion, has become a convenient crutch for the modern writer. The scene in season 2’s finale when Tyrion whines to Shae—even just slightly—about being a scarred dwarf almost made me roll my eyes. The real artistry is in establishing Tyrion’s obstacles with as much subtle and quiet dignity as possible. And that mostly succeeded in the second season, which comes as a relief, because by 2/3 of the way through the first season, I’d almost dismissed him as two-dimensional and sickeningly sympathetic. I feel that the prejudice against his form was already well established in the first season, and the “imp” jibes at him that peppered the second were plenty to supplant that. His real character arc is in wising up to the fact that one cannot run a kingdom based upon reason and rationality alone. We like him because he’s sweetly naïve, but we’re fearful because this was almost—and still could be—his fatal flaw.

To reiterate your sentiment, I in many ways enjoyed the second season more than the first, even if for less lofty reasons. Those daytime “stories” can be easy to fall into, and I fell into this slightly ridiculous web of relationships. And I’m looking forward to more.

Yours,


greyfoot

Dragonchild said...

The thing that grinds my gears the most about SoIaF/GoT is that the most offensive expressions of misogyny, aristocracy, pedophilia, social injustice and "black and black" morality is that it's gritty (TM), edgy (TM), original (TM) and most of all, "realistic" (TM) (R) (C). Realistic. Really? We're going to go there?

This book has dragons in it. DRAGONS. And not just dragons. There's magic, seasons lasting years and zombies.

Now, I'm not opposed to explicit content per se. If anything, I'm a strong opponent of censorship. Stories about misogyny and child brides and whatnot will be told, and the world isn't a worse place for it. If anything, it would probably be a lot worse if we tried to pretend such things don't exist. It's OK to like this stuff as long as you're honest about how much of a vice it is. It's just that I find the arguments raised in defense of GoT's indulgence in "misery porn" thoroughly unconvincing due to plain-in-sight evidence within the narrative itself. FFS, the most notable child bride is THE ONE WITH THE DRAGONS!

P.S. "World sucks, everybody dies" is not original either. Not to anyone who's familar with ANCIENT GREEK tragedies.

Dragonchild said...

"probably be a lot worse if we tried to pretend such things don't exist. It's OK to like this stuff" - GAH, that don't look right!

Obligatory clarification in regrettable hindsight -- I mean it's OK to like FICTIONAL stories about misogyny etc. There's no dramatic tension quite like having to deal with a bona fide douchebag; as such the people who watch GoT and all its humiliation of women don't bother me per se. What seriously creeps me out is fans compelled to convince others there's real substance to the smut, like this is great literature or something. I don't necessarily find the presence of sex in GoT disturbing, but let's not pretend it plays any sort of meaningful role within the narrative, let alone improves the story.

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