A crushette. Sean Bean. That was my crass reason for sampling the pilot episode of Game of Thrones, even though it reeked of pimply boys and their role-playing games. The last time I took an interest in fantasy was when I was 17: Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. As for science fiction, the works of Joanna Russ and Ursula K Le Guin were once necessary reading for feminists, but you turned your back on them if you had literary aspirations. This snobbishness was delicately dissected by Le Guin herself in a recent New Yorker article: “Science fiction can be imaginatively demanding and intellectually complex, but academic prejudice left readers untaught in how to read it.”
Still, Sean Bean. Tasty! These days we readily confess to watching crappy television, legitimised by the phrase “guilty pleasure”, but not to girlish infatuations when you are an old boiler. Bean isn’t even a “thinking woman’s crumpet”, as Bill Nighy, bless him, is characterised. My other crushettes: Vincent D’Onofrio and Ray Winstone. Bad boys of the ‘lead with your dick’ school of acting.
David Simon’s The Wire and David Milch’s Deadwood are the high-water marks for American television series. As popular as the DVD boxed set has made it, The Wire struggled for years to find an audience. How the United States, known for Dallas and Dynasty, could make a series of Dreiserian proportions was explored by Peter Jukes in ‘Why Britain Can’t Do The Wire’, published in Prospect in 2009. As always, economics played a part. In the United Kingdom, advertising revenues fell and creative decisions became pinched; in the US, cable channels came into their own, fomenting risk-taking. The story I like best is the one Alan Ball tells about submitting the first draft of Six Feet Under to HBO. He expected a rebuff. Instead, the response was, “Can you make it more fucked up?”
I’d tried The Borgias and was repelled. Ditto True Blood. And Mad Men is too Brylcreemed for my taste. So, Sean Bean aside, my expectations of Game of Thrones were zero. I’d never heard of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books, which have hogged bestseller lists over the years. Yet I found myself spellbound – excuse the pun – from the git-go by pretend kingdoms, breastplates and battleaxes, a warlord with flared nostrils, direwolves and, for heaven’s sakes, baby dragons. I wasn’t the only non-geek feeling this way: Game of Thrones now has an average audience of 10.3 million per episode.
This wasn’t a guilty pleasure. All pleasure, no guilt. Still, I wanted to know why I was mesmerised. After all, I preen my intellectual feathers reading WG Sebald and Witold Gombrowicz. The answer, in short: rip-roaring storytelling.
Martin and the writer–producers of the television series, David Benioff and DB Weiss, have the same serving men as Kipling:
I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
Martin’s books might fall in the fantasy genre, but the television series is more Akira Kurosawa than Peter Jackson in its intent and aesthetic. Power is the subject – how to acquire, keep, wield and lose it. Benioff and Weiss studied Beckett and Joyce respectively at Dublin’s Trinity College, which might account for their fine sense of the absurd, but they also hew closely to Martin’s books, a formidable task because Martin has more intertwined plots and subplots than the snakes on Medusa’s head. True, The Wire had numerous plot lines but each season was self-contained. In Game of Thrones, the plot lines will sprawl every which way from season to season.
The series begins with three horsemen in heavy winter cloaks making their way through a dark tunnel. A portcullis is raised, and they are on the other side of the Wall, a mighty edifice of ice that separates the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros from the snow-bound wastelands. We emerge with them, into the story, into a medieval world where intrigue, insanity, perversity and sadistic capriciousness flourish.
I was in awe of the deftness with which Benioff and Weiss convey so much in so short a time in the opening sequence. The confident pace continues – a masterclass in exposition, casting and cinematography – to the last scene of the first episode, when a youngster, Bran Stark, climbs up a rampart and spies Jaime Lannister shagging his twin sister Cersei, wife to King Robert Baratheon, ruler of all seven kingdoms. What if Bran blabs? Incest is not the problem. Then as now, royal families were notorious for inbreeding. (Have you counted the fingers and toes on the Windsors?) However, if it were known that Robert’s three children were not his own, they wouldn’t inherit the throne. Problem solved when Jaime cordially compliments Bran on his climbing ability and then casually shoves the kid off the rampart. Jaime to Cersei: “The things I do for love.” If you don’t become a Throniac then and there, you never will.
Bran is the son of Lord Eddard Stark – that would be Sean Bean – who keeps the peace in the dank northern regions of Westeros, close to the Wall. When King Robert asks Ned, as Eddard is known, to leave his family and go to King’s Landing, the seat of power, and help him rule, he puts misgivings aside. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Bean does a good tormented face. “It’s all behind the eyes,” says Weiss of Bean’s acting ability.
Ned has doubts because Robert is no longer the warrior he once was but a belching oaf who, yes, leads with his dick, and is advised by a circle of conniving courtiers who are a showcase of corruption, treachery and sexual pathology. Angered, Ned tries to throttle one of them. Face red, gasping for breath, the courtier says, “Ah, the Starks. Quick tempers, slow minds.” And he has a point. Ned seems to think his honour will protect him as he barges around King’s Landing in his efforts to discover the truth about Cersei’s children. Once Robert dies – too fat and drunk to get out of the way of a trundling boar – Cersei springs into action. She installs her son, the malevolent, malignant Joffrey, on the Iron Throne. Arrested for treason, Ned loses his head.
Up until the sword swings down, those of us who hadn’t read the books and didn’t know of Martin’s penchant for turning storytelling expectations on their head were sure of a last-minute intervention. After all, Ned was the main character and the tale’s moral weight, what with nearly everyone else slip-sliding toward hell. It would be as if Tony Soprano were whacked at the end of the first season. So there we were, stunned, left with Ned’s head on a spike. Dead. Not tasty. Nothing behind the eyes.
Tolkien wrote about the craft of storytelling. Successful fantasy must have a happy ending or at least redemption in some form, joy on the other side of grief. Christ died, but He died for us. Tolkien called this ‘eucatastrophe’. George Martin couldn’t care less. He was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, but he learned from the deaths of his friends who fought in the conflict that death was arbitrary, final. The good could die and the bad survive. Tough patootie. What goes around doesn’t come around. Tolkien called this ‘dyscatastrophe’, to be avoided at all cost unless accompanied by deliverance that gladdens hearts. I hadn’t realised how much I’d imbibed the certainty of eucatastrophe in stories until Ned lost his head. Noooooo!
Never mind. In the second season, Tyrion Lannister, played with award-winning verve by Peter Dinklage, takes Ned’s place at the centre of the series. He’s a dwarf, a half-man, a grotesque, and he’s much more gratifying than Ned because he’s droll, sarcastic, profane, and smarter than any of the Starks or even his own family. No hobbling hubris or false humility in the Imp. At the end of the second season, his concubine suggests they leave King’s Landing and his wicked family because they are “bad people”. Quite so. But Tyrion refuses: “These bad people are what I am good at – out-talking them, out-thinking them. It’s what I am, and I like it. I like it more than anything I’ve ever done.”
One Stark does have a brain: Arya, Ned’s youngest daughter. She goes on the lam after her father dies. Made keenly observant by swordplay lessons, she sees – and survives. She also learns cunning. She’s attracted to the dark arts, to the path of the assassin. Arya isn’t anything like The Hunger Games’s heroine, a goody-two-shoes if there ever was one. Another Thrones pleasure: unpicking human psychology. The series makes clear we are all a mixture of good and bad, all in the swamp together, up to our necks in foibles and frailties.
Arya is but one of many fully fleshed female characters. In the second season, they stack up like cordwood. A stand-out is Brienne of Tarth, a whopper of a warrior. Tired of being underestimated and mocked by soldiers because of her gender, she skewers one with her sword in the most gruesome manner imaginable. Even Jaime Lannister, who threatened to open Ned from “balls to brain and see what Starks are made of”, is astounded by Brienne’s methodical, magnificent revenge.
Cersei is the supreme bad-ass in Thrones, alpha-female-ing it through life. But even she is given moments when we understand her, if not feel sympathy. During a humdinger of a battle, the royal women are herded to safety underground. Knocking back goblets of wine, a sneering Cersei expresses a desire to be fighting with the men, not stuck with a bunch of hymn-singing wimps. To the battlements!
Curiously, Benioff and Weiss have been chastised for including too much sex in the series. Winsome wenches frolicking. Weiss had a good comeback to the prudes:
There will always be those who want to see less sex, and those who want to see more sex, and those who want to see sex in big tubs of pudding. You just can’t please everyone. This year, we’re going to focus on the pudding people.
It wasn’t the sex that bothered me but the romantic cooing: “I am yours. You are mine.” Puh-leeese.
The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum was more discerning than most of the nose-holding critics in her appraisal, but perplexing all the same. She pronounced the series to be “the latest entry in television’s most esteemed category: the sophisticated cable drama about a patriarchal subculture”. That would include The Sopranos, Deadwood, Big Love and Mad Men, as well network series such as Downton Abbey. Patriarchies with hierarchies that are often brutally enforced. To Nussbaum, the “undergirding strength of each series is its insight into what it means to be excluded from power: to be a woman, or a bastard, or a ‘half-man’”. Pauline Kael, you are missed.
An example from Thrones of a powerless woman is Daenerys, a princess exiled from Westeros. Her brother intends to marry her off to Khal Drogo, the warlord with the flared nostrils. “I don’t want be his queen. I want to go home,” Daenerys tells her brother. “So do I,” answers the brother, “but tell me, sweet sister, how do we go home? We go home with an army, with Khal Drogo’s army. I would let his whole tribe fuck you, all 40,000 and their horses, too, if that’s what it took.” Message clear: women are currency.
Nussbaum ended with a bitch-slap: Benioff and Weiss might think their work is of a higher calibre than, say, Entourage or Californication, “But it’s still part of another colorful patriarchal subculture, the one called Los Angeles.” Huh? My head started twirling on my neck. Last time I looked, men ran the world; civilisation is a hive of patriarchal subcultures. The more artful the analyses we have of these subcultures the better.
Still, there is something about titties and dimpled bottoms, staples of Restoration comedy as well as Murdoch tabloids, that makes some critics blow a fuse. When a bordello owner asks two prostitutes to practise faking pleasure with each other, Nussbaum described it as “a real Uroboros of titillation”. You can salivate at the lezzie action while holding forth on the scene’s signifiers and the debasement of women.
Perhaps if Benioff and Weiss had been given a bigger budget for the first season and were able to stage a critical battle we’d have seen less frolicking and more spilled guts. Would this be another Uroboros, with viewers thrilling at a gorgeously staged blood-drenched battle while solemnly acknowledging that peasants of the male variety don’t fare any better under their liege masters than women? Gather round, listen up: it’s the storytelling, stupid.
When we meet Daenerys, she is fragile, as diaphanous as her dresses. Before you know it, she is eating an entire horse heart raw without throwing up. Empowered, I think, is the word. And her creep of a brother gets his rapaciously desired kingly crown when Drogo pours molten gold over his head. You could be titillated by this inventive execution or see it as just punishment. We are not in Middle-earth or Hogwarts anymore, Dorothy. Or are we? Daenerys walks into the flames of a funeral pyre and emerges unscathed with three baby dragons perched on her nude body. They come to life, unfurl their wings, and make the darndest noises, throwing their supernal screeches high into the dawn silence.
Those vexatious dragons. A major reason for the series’ success among non-geeks is that Martin grounded his books in history: the various Crusades and the War of the Roses, as well as dynastic shenanigans. Phantasmagoria is kept to a minimum. Political intrigue, not necromancy. All the same, I loved the baby dragons. Some think Game of Thrones jumps the shark with those captivating CGI creatures; I see the beauty and grandeur of the series crystallised in that one scene. A few episodes later, a witch gives birth to a shadow monster. Comes close – a hair’s breadth – to jumping the shark. I fully expected Marty Feldman to make an appearance, popping over from Young Frankenstein. An aberration, or so one hopes.
In interviews, Martin comes across as a genial fellow, always at pains to make sure that readers know A Song of Ice and Fire is not a Disneyland Middle Ages. What he seems rarely to mention, however, are his university chess-playing days. I learned about them from David Hartwell, an éminence grise in science-fiction circles, who said that if you want to understand Martin’s plotting and his attitude toward his characters, you should know that he was president of his college chess club at Northwestern University, Illinois, and captain of the intercollegiate team.
In an early story, Unsound Variations, Martin has a failed writer deliver a homily:
Life is like chess … All a matter of choices. Every move you face choices, and every choice leads to different variations. It branches and then branches again, and sometimes the variation you pick isn’t as good as it looked, isn’t sound at all. But you don’t know that until your game is over.
Martin plots his books like a chess game. He knows all the variations, sound and unsound, all the possible outcomes. One can think of Ned Stark as checkmated, tipped over. But enough with the WTF moments, George Martin. Please keep the Imp in the game.
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