My Critique of Game of Thrones
As I have mentioned in my column and blog many times, all of my criticism takes a narrow view. The shows that I recommend are only series that I have time to watch. At my most active, I can watch maybe ten percent of all the series currently on the air, and as a result, many, many good series have fallen by the wayside. I never got into Downton Abbey, I only sporadically watch NCIS, and there are so many streaming services that I barely can watch a few key ones on Netflix and Amazon.
But there are some very popular series that, even given the fullness of opportunity, that not only would I never watch, when I hear what they are about and what happens on them, I am frankly appalled that these are the series that my fellow viewers have chosen to embrace. Even worse, I wonder what it says for the public that so many of them worship these series. Today, I’m going to discuss one such series that has already infected its network, the audience, and frankly the world for reasons that I can’t comprehend: Game of Thrones.
Now, I’ll be honest. Initially, I chose not to watch Game of Thrones out of any political or artistic reasons. When it premiered, Sundays at 9, I would, usually and faithfully be watching The Good Wife with my mother. Political points of view aside, it was a truly brilliant written, acted and often extremely funny, courtroom drama that absolutely represented the best of what network TV could do. In fact, I would spend many articles raging why the Emmys would choose to overindulge one series and practically ignore the other. (End of digression)
I know, that’s a weak excuse. Even though streaming was still in its infancy at the time, HBO makes a habit of repeating its original series so many times after the premiere that I could’ve chosen to watch the initial episode of Thrones at any time after the initial premiere. The major reasons I chose not to watch it were even simpler. I didn’t know anything about the books they were based on, I had major problems with any television series based on fantasy, and it sounded too much like a mix of period piece and swords and sorcery for me to even consider quality TV.
A couple of words about George R.R. Martin. At the time, I didn’t know what a polarizing figure he was among the sci-fi community. I only knew him through his work on the 1980s incarnations of The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast, and the odd sci-fi story I’d read, none of which I’d found particular impressive. Furthermore, as much as it’s easy to blame him for a lot, at least some of the blame must go to showrunners and head-writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Indeed, a good argument can be made that much of what happens on the series is more their fault then it is Martin’s, particularly in the later seasons where (presumably) they have begun to depart rather largely from the published books. This doesn’t absolve Martin, particularly as Benioff and Weiss stuck pretty close to the spirit and text of the novels, but let’s at least to be willing to put some of the blame where it belongs.
But even if I didn’t have all the baggage that pertains to Martin and the world of Westeros that many people, the fact is, most of my problems with the series would still be there. How much of this you want to blame on Martin or the show’s writing staff is open to debate, but the fact the problems are there, and frankly, I think they would’ve been insurmountable. Let me state them for the record, and explain my problems with them purely as a television critic.
1. The cast is too large. Now, almost immediately I must quantify this. I don’t have a problem with series with large casts. The New Golden Age of Television works as well as it does, because of large, multi-talented casts. It would take an entire article to go through these great series, so I’m going to limit it solely to HBO dramas.
OZ, the prison drama that basically started the revolution, began its run with more than a dozen regular members and nine semi-regulars, and would expand with each successive season. Deadwood had nearly twenty lead actors to start show and managed to do a fairly good job expanding all of them in its (unfortunately) too limited run. And of course, the gold standard for great television, The Wire, had one of the most sprawling cast in the history of the medium, starting with two dozen lead actors, and often putting in a whole new group of regulars with each new season.
But the difference seems to be, each series was run by a genius, who knew how to keep things from spiraling out. Oz was in a claustrophobic setting, and there was a fairly high death rate. Deadwood was limited almost entirely to the breadth of the town, and made its missteps when I tried to give too much room to new characters. And as Simon and his co-writers constantly said, The Wire was the Great American Novel with the central character being Baltimore.
Game of Thrones, in the meantime, seems to deal entirely with so large a realm that it needs a map over the credits to tell you where everything is. And it keeps jumping about from location to location so frequently that its nearly impossible to figure out where the hell you are. There’s also the fact that each season so far has been ten episodes a year, as opposed to the usual thirteen for HBO, so that even this close to the series end, its hard to tell who exactly the main characters are. (I read one article a couple years back saying that even the biggest characters on Thrones are often limited to no more than forty minutes of screen time per season.) Again, I have no problems with ensemble shows in general, but even in previous ensemble shows, at least the major characters would interact occasionally. In many cases, most of the major characters didn’t start interacting until Season 5, and that’s mainly because Benioff and Weiss diverted from the text. I know sometimes you need a chart to keep characters clear; Game of Thrones would seem to require a wall.
That’s a huge burden for any series, and that wouldn’t bother me so much, if not for the second point:
2. Characters keep dying, and they keep dying horribly. Again, I don’t have a problem with series where characters are killed. A fairly solid argument could be made that’s part of what makes the New Golden Age so special: no one is safe. (Declan may have problems with this, but even he admits it works at times: his favorite season of 24 was Day 5, and that’s the day which by far had the highest body count.) And indeed, so many of the great shows of this era — in addition to the ones I’ve mentioned, I’ll add Breaking Bad and Lost — work so well because when the death comes, it stings a lot.
What I have problem with our series where the characters seem to die arbitrarily or for the sole purpose of shock value. This isn’t the sole property of Thrones, either: Shonda Rhimes seems to be even bloodier, and I’ve had major issues with series like Sons of Anarchy that seem to delight in killing people unpleasantly. What makes Game of Thrones particularly unpleasant is that it seems to revel in killing off its very large cast in particularly unpleasant way often before we even get to know them. It was one thing when Ned Stark got killed, the series had built so much around him in the first season, you almost forgot what was in the book. But from this point, the butcheries just seem to come constantly and using all the gore that HBO can get away with. Indeed, they seem to delight in following characters for an entire season, and have you get attached them, and then mindlessly slaughter them in as public a way as possible. (It probably goes without saying, but if you get a wedding invitation in Westeros, don’t RSVP.)
All of this has a level of reaching the kind of detachment you need to get through your typical teenage slasher movie, which would be fine. Sometimes you need that to get through some dark series. Except it now seems that the whole point of the series — the battle for the Iron Throne — is solely go to depend on which character is still alive after all the slaughter. Now, I know battles for thrones can be bloody, but this is ludicrous. Frankly, I’m amazed so many people are still taking it seriously. Or maybe that’s not why they watch. Which brings me to my final problem:
3. The copious, ridiculous sex. Declan and I had a running gag about a similarly blood and sex soaked HBO series. We said that the real difference between True Blood and porn is that porn has less nudity. You could substitute Game of Thrones and not have much a debate. Of course, the major difference between Thrones and Blood is that in Thrones, the majority of the sex is incest, half the time known, half the time it is unknown, and all if it pretty violent. Hell, the pilot opened with a scene where the Lannister twins were spotted having sex, and the more onlooker was thrown out a castle window! It’s gotten a lot worse from there,
And even when the people who are having sex aren’t related (which is the other half of the sex) it can get pretty darn perverse. If there’s a field for this kind of sex (and given the mass popularity of the novels and the series, its probably a lot bigger than we’d like to believe), at least, its not doing anything radically new, even on the levels of TV series. (There’ve been two series on the Borgias that came around the same time, and I think True Blood as well had a fair amount, though again, that’s just rumor.) What is the most horrifying part of the sex is the brutalization of women. Now, you would\think in this new era of female abuse there’d be some mass outcry for the way that female characters on this series have been debased and often brutalized. There was a fair amount on controversy when one of the surviving Stark children, barely in her teen, was essentially raped on her wedding night. But it didn’t last very long, mainly because not that long afterward all everybody cared about was whether or not Jon Snow was alive or dead.
One could make the argument that this shaming of women is part of time and place, but since we don’t know when or even where this series is taking place, that holds very little water with me. It doesn’t seem to bother millions of other fans, and that troubles me even more. Not quite as much as the untold millions who worship Shonda Rhimes or The Walking Dead, but it is very troubling.
However, I will be honest. There is one thing about Game of Thrones that I admire. It is simultaneously the biggest and smallest thing about. I speak, of course, about the magnificent Peter Dinklage and his work as Tyrion Lannister.
Unlike the majority of viewers, I had actually heard of Dinklage before his work on this show. He is a formidable and charismatic actor who, but for his stature, would have been a superstar actor in a field. As it is, he had already managed quite a remarkable career in the independent film industry, most memorably in The Station Agent and Find Me Guilty. The matching of him with this kind of fantasy role should’ve been a no-brainer, but Dinklage, prior to this series, avoided these roles because he didn’t want to be typecast. Indeed, he made it very clear when he was cast in the role of Tyrion that he didn’t want to have to grow the conventional beard associated with so many fairy tales. When he finally had to grow one, he made it clear it was going to be that of desperate fugitive, not a cuddly dwarf.
Dinklage is by far the best thing about this series. He plays Tyrion like Richard III melded with Frank Urquhart/Underwood, with the drinking and whoring of Falstaff thrown in. From the beginning of the series, he has been one of the more magnificent schemers — he’s literally the red-headed stepchild of the family, and he knows the only way he’s going to get power is by manipulation. For that reason, he is generally loathed everyone, and the feeling is mutual He is probably the only character on the series one feels even the remotest amount of sympathy for, even though he would probably disdain the viewer for doing so.
And of course, he is responsible for the one truly glorious moment of the show. In season 4, after months of being suspected of the murder of his nephew, he goes before the court, and yells out: “I did not kill Tyrell Lannister, but I wish to God I had! His death brought be more pleasure than a thousand whores!” You could hear the ping of brilliance in that moment, mainly because it was surrounded in the filth and noise and bloodshed of hundreds of other beastly acts. Now, I’m not saying that Dinklage deserved the Emmys he’s gotten for Game of Thrones, but he deserves to get awards for something, and if this the only way to get them, I can’t begrudge them that.
But for all that, Game of Thrones is almost entirely a bloody, disgusting orgy of violence that even for HBO represents the worst elements of pay cable with little of the benefits. I’m inclined to give the network some credit because I know its because of popular shows like Thrones and True Blood, HBO has been given the latitude to experiment with less showy dramas and comedies. We probably wouldn’t have gotten The Deuce or Big Little Lies or Insecure or any of HBO’s other brilliant experimental series without these monstrosities.
What bothers me is that HBO seems to be its future is Game of Thrones. The series is scheduled to come to an end in the summer of 2019. But there are at least four other prequel or sequel based series being planned, and one is already in production. Is this going to be what HBO looks like in the 2020s, with half of its schedule devoted to Westeros?
The world of television has been expanding exponentially in the new millennium. For the most part, I consider this a good thing, as it has allowed for truly magnificent programming. And HBO must be given credit — a lot of it -for leading the charge. But HBO lost its place at the top of the pyramid when it expanded its reach beyond its grasp ten years. Could winter really be coming, not only to Westeros, but to HBO? There are plenty of other services more than willing to take the crown. Indeed, AMC, Showtime, and Netflix have spent most of the past ten years showing they have the imagination and the will to do so. I really hope that the network that showed the realism of Sopranos and Six Feet Under and so many other great series hasn’t decided its future lies with dragons and Wind Walkers. That would be a fate I’m not even sure Jon Snow would want to come back for.