Sunday, July 10, 2011

Game of Thrones 1-03: Lord Snow

Thus far Game of Thrones is less of a TV show and more of a show that just happens to air on TV. The concepts I've been fumbling towards in the past few weeks, things like series space and genre fusion, hardly seem to apply to this series. Whereas even serial dramas typically establish a kind of status quo to tell stories within, Game of Thrones is constant motion, telling one big story without stopping for breath. It seems like not a television series but rather a 10-hour movie split up into manageable chunks. In this regard it's very reminiscent of Rome, which for all its virtues had enough rapid-fire plot twists and scenery changes that in the end you just wanted to throw up your hands and beg for a filler episode where Vorenus and Pullo go to the beach or something.

So “Lord Snow” starts with Ned Stark arriving in King's Landing, being promptly whisked into a meeting of the governing council, and finding out that the kingdom's finances are basically in the shitter and it's going to get worse with King Robert's demand to hold a tournament. In a way this is a big scene: the past two episodes were mainly about getting Ned here, and now he finds out that the problems are much deeper than he thought. It would seem more naturally to be an episode-ending cliffhanger, not an opener, especially when the two conflicts it introduces – the kingdom's debt and the upcoming tournament – both go unmentioned throughout the rest of the episode. “Lord Snow” touches a lot of plots and characters the same way: we have one scene with Joffrey, one with Sansa, a couple with Arya, one scene back at Winterfell, and so on and so forth. Some of these scenes are worthwhile while others are just versions on “Hey, just as a reminder this thing is still happening.” It's acceptable, though somewhat questionable, to space plotlines far apart in a movie or novel, but watching a story unfold one scene a week is kind of excruciating.

“Lord Snow”, however, does more closely resemble a typical episode of television than its two predecessors. (Yes, I am terribly behind on this series. I watched the first couple episodes a couple months ago, but only had TV-time for one new show, and I decided The Killing looked more promising. Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm catching up on Game of Thrones now because, well, the only real alternative is watching another season of True Blood, and I'm not falling for that one again.) It has three major plotlines, one in each of its three settings, which advance the plot without creating a completely new status quo. It's the type of quiet episode dramas secretely thrive on, where everything calms down a bit and we have a chance to start getting comfortable with these people.

The world of Game of Thrones is split into three seperate spheres, two of which are related and one of which seems far away and connected through only the different past. The series reserves specific colour palettes for each setting: dark blues and whites for the north and The Wall, fiery reds and yellows for the Dothraki desert, and regal gold and ruddy brown for the urban world of King's Landing. It's a simple visual device, but very effective, and for better or worse makes it seem as though the plotlines are taking place in different worlds.

(I also appreciate the set design, which really recognizes that it's the Middle Ages and everything is basically pretty shitty. It's not so much true in the royal palace, but go back and look at the Stark's castle, which is really quite crude – and they're the lords of the place!)

The King's Landing plotline concerns Catelyn's ill-advised information-gathering mission and how it is quickly derailed by an old suitor with schemes of his own. Of all the stories here this one is the most blatantly setting up pieces for later episodes. Most importantly we (and the Starks) learn that the dagger that was used to attack their youngest child Bran belongs to Tyrion Lannister.

In contrast to the hey-this-person-exists scenes this is good serialization: we spend a significant amount of time with these characters and get a definite advance in the plot. It also introduces Littlefinger, one of the few characters that lives up to Martin's reputation for complexity. Littlefinger is a schemer, inherently untrustworthy and always with a secret up his sleeve, but he's also kind of pitiful. Being threatened in the same manner by both halves of the Stark couple makes him look sympathetic and misunderstood, and his genuine (albeit unrequited) love for Catelyn in a society where women are married off for convenience is a burning, resentful passion at the centre of his character. He owns a whorehouse, but is still hung up on a childhood flame and devoted to her, like the sap that always follows the cheerleader around doing her homework (say, does that count as Vocational Irony?) He stands out in contrast to the “I know everything” superhumanity of his co-schemer Varys, who is admittedly helped out a lot by a genuinely creepy performance by Harry Lloyd.

The benefits of televization (that's totally a word. It's perfectly cromulent) are most apparent in the Wall plotline. When I was reading Game of Thrones (which I only got about halfway through before putting down in disgust) I groaned every time Jon Snow and Tyrion would show up. They were such blatant author favourite characters: Jon with his angst and Oh So Special qualities, and Tyrion with his one-liners and bad boy attitude. I felt as though Martin was really trying his hardest to make me love Tyrion, which seems to have worked on many but just made my contrarian soul irritated. It didn't help that Martin felt compelled to drop a pithy line about being a bastard or dwarf every page whenever one of them was in the vicinity. So a plotline centring around Jon and Tyrion was doubly groan-inducing.

But for some reason the Wall plot in “Lord Snow”, important enough to even give the episode its title, didn't bother me nearly as much. It's not just that I don't have to slog through Martin's prose: visually seeing Jon tossing his fellow recruits around makes him look like more of a bully and less of a man who's just better than everyone else, which both makes him less of a Mary Sue and makes the other recruits' angry reaction seem more justified and less like shallow envy. Jon's arc in “Lord Snow” then becomes not a condescending step down to the “little people”, but a lesson against flaunting his priveledge, even unconciously.

And then we have Tyrion, who still suffers from the “Look, isn't he a badass?” factor – look at the scene in which he walks into a room where Jon is being cornered by his fellow recruits and tells everyone off in a glorified fashion. But it helps that Peter Dinklage actually has the charm that Martin tried so hard to impart to the character. And in the later dialogue scene between him and Lord Mormont he manages to get in some good lines but still comes off as a flippant observer unappreciative of the men who keep him safe.

We usually talk about “adaptation decay”, but I think Game of Thrones is an example of the opposite. Martin's book, despite a basically interesting core plot, is so laden down with pet characters and bad prose that I couldn't finish its admittedly huge length. But a TV series is naturally a group production, and suffers less from one man's love for his own creation. In addition, the economy required for a ten-episode season means cutting out a lot of the repetitive angst from Jon and Arya*. There's also the fact that a visual media like television allows a more direct experience than a novel, and can be more immediately wowing. So while I'm pretty contemptuous of Martin's novels, I'm so far reservedly enjoying the TV show.

The third area of the show and the one most disconnected from the rest is the adventures of deposed royalty Viserys and Danaerys in the Mongol-esque society of the Dothraki. This is one area of the adaptation that has proved most problematic: in a visual medium it's inevitably more obvious that the “savage” culture just happens to be the one made up of the show's only non-white characters.** This is only made more exploitative by the overt sexualizing of the “savage prince white princess” storyline. Some of the shots look like the cover of a sleazy “erotic fantasy” novel. As if that weren't enough, Emilia Clarke's dead-eyed stare and last episode's subplot which rolled into lesbian contortions with her handmaid as a way of teaching her how to properly please her husband is enough to make you think that you turned on the wrong pay cable station.

However, one thing David Beinoff, D. B. Weiss and the rest of the adapters have done well is to juxtapose the Dothraki storyline with that of the Seven Kingdoms. When the out-and-out selling and rape of Danaerys is juxtaposed with the negotiations over Joffrey and Sansa's engagement, it invites the observation that although Sansa's marriage is less outwardly brutal than Danaerys's, neither has any concern for the women involved. (As we find out in “Lord Snow”, Joffrey isn't too fond of the marriage either, but at least he'll get to be king.)

In addition to learning she's pregnant, in this episode Danaerys is confronted with her violent brother Viserys, and just as he's about to abuse her she finds the Dothraki warriors interceding. (Viserys basically belies the series ad copy that “in Game of Thrones nobody is all good or all bad”, which is in itself less of a point of praise and more of a basic prerequisite for interesting characterization.) The abused Dany suddenly finds that, as the Khalisi, she has gained the power to escape her brother's abuse. Of course, this comes at the cost of bowing down (ifyouknowwhatimeannudgenudgewinkwink) to another patriarch in Khal Drogo.

If there's a paralell to the main storyline here it doesn't involve Sansa (who's barely in this episode) but rather the new ruling class of the Seven Kingdoms. There's a series-original scene that involves a drunken King Robert berating a servant (who is apparently a far-flung member of the Lannister clan) and then commiserating with Jaime about their past in the war that gained them the throne. Like Danaerys, they have both thrown off one tyrant (in both cases a mad Targaeryn) but in exchange for their powers have gained new masters. Robert is constrained by his debtors and the duties of his positions, while Jaime is forced to serve under a man who abuses his family and fucks the sister that he's in love with. Ned is in a similar position, having fought long against the Targaeryns only to establish a kingdom infested with the Lannisters he despises. The fact that this scene is immediately followed by the Viserys/Dany confrontation establishes what is really Game of Thrones' first interesting idea: that servitude to some form of power is basically inescapable, and by overthrowing one master you may gain much, but will inevitably have to serve a new one. It's a pessimistic and maybe conservative message, but one that is hard to argue against given the histories of both Westeros and Earth.

Lord Snow” is written by series creators Beinoff & Weiss, as the past two episodes have also been. As adapters it's up to these two to be more workmen and less creators, and they rise to the challenge admirably. (You can see this in the first episode not scripted by them, 1-04, which is noticably clunkier.) David Beinoff is a crime novelist as well as a screenwriter for genre pictures like Troy and, uh, Wolverine: Origins. Game of Thrones is a series that draws on both of these genres, transplanting the gritty scheming of crime novels to a high fantasy environment. This is at least the reputation of Martin's novels, and the grimy surroundings of the TV series make it fact. The fact that the early plot is driven by what is essentially a murder mystery just further emphasizes this. D. B. Weiss brings the nerd cred, being the author of a video game tribute novel Lucky Wander Boy and various sci-fi and fantasy projects. The episode's director is Brian Kirk, who's worked on a lot of very different shows. Among those credits are historical dramas like The Tudors and Boardwalk Empire. To the extent there's a clear directorial style to this episode, it stems from this genre – the camera frequently stops to take in the carefully rendered scenery and costumes. Game of Thrones is technically not a historical show, stemming from no history of our world, but often acts like it – especially what John Perich has described as the “Blood, Tits, and Scowling” subgenre. As in Steins;Gate two weeks ago, the staff reflects the unique mix of genres involves in this show – high fantasy, crime, nerd pandering, and historical epic.

Lord Snow” is not a monumental episode of television, but because of that it moves Game of Thrones in the right direction. Of all the episodes of the series I've seen so far, this is the one that feels more like a well-constructed episode of television, that moves the story forward while being a satisfying product in its own right. Game of Thrones still has a lot of work to do – for starters, someone needs to send all actors (not just the ones on the show, but actors in general) a memo about how being in a fantasy epic doesn't mean you have to speak in a quasi-British accent and chew scenery relentlessly. Of course, the dialogue they're given, full of bold pronouncements and self-satisfied quips, doesn't help matters much. As some critics have noted, the Dothraki sequences are the weak link here, the only case of the series simplifying the novel. But “Lord Snow” is a move towards what this series promised it would be: a complex political drama with nuanced statements about power and society. It is becoming an adaptation that elevates instead of merely translates.

*I'm not going into a lot of focus on Arya, who had the only other real storyline in “Lord Snow”, concerning Ned discovering her sword and getting her fencing lessons. The struggles of a tomboy against a patriarchal society has been done to death and neither Martin nor Beinoff and Weiss bring anything new to it. Worse, the foil to Arya is usually not society but her girlier sister Sansa, which reduces the whole thing to a “swordfighting is cool, weddings drool” re-phrasing of macho values.

**Franchise partisans defend stuff like this by claiming that it's only reproducing what the historical medieval period was like. Ignoring the fact that in the Middle Ages it was actually the white Europeans who were the backwards culture, there's no reason why this would have to be transplanted onto a fantasy world at all. Personally, if I was in charge of the Game of Thrones adaptation – well, first I would do everything I could to change it into a Perdido Street Station TV series, but if that didn't work then I'd cast all or at least some of the Seven Kingdoms characters as black. Pissing off fanboys would be a nice side benefit of this.

Next Week: A careful examination of a cultural relic from the ancient year of 2004, specifically an episode of The Shield.

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