Monday, March 10, 2014

Some thoughts on Game of Thrones

I can't remember why I picked up Game of Thrones. It was in 2007, well before the TV show would become a phenomenon. I knew Martin's work from his Wild Cards series, which was okay, but which only caught my interest because Roger Zelazny had contributed a couple stories to it.

In general, I don't like fantasy books, because most of them are pretty awful. That's true of everything, Sturgeon's law, et cetera et cetera, but fantasy comes in so many variations of awful, with the Tolkien pastiches, the Conan ripoffs and the gaming fiction. I can't remember what would have moved me to pick up this fantasy series of which I knew nothing.

Now, I've read all the books and caught up with the show. I live next door to a Game of Thrones superfan. (Hi, Nicole!) I'm listening to the first book again. It's interesting coming back to it, now that I have a different perspective.

If I may digress for a moment, something that I tend not to like in my fiction is when the characters are handed unearned victories. A couple years back, Emma Coats, a story artist at Pixar, tweeted a series of loose guidelines she had picked up from her more senior colleagues. They're all pretty great, and the entire list forms the centerpiece of another post I'm writing, but the one that sticks with me is:

Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Too often, writers are so in love with their characters that they have the characters succeed through outrageous coincidence, (Oh, you can't paralyze me through that pressure point at the base of my spine! I'm immune, because of a hitherto unrevealed war injury!) or profound incompetence of the part of the villains.

I thought I was going to hate Game of Thrones, because, near the end of the first book, Ned was bungling his investigation badly, and I figured that he'd succeed anyway. Either he'd goad Cersei into a "Yes, I did it and I'd do it again!" confession in front of Robert, or he'd unearth some flimsy evidence that would be treated as incontrovertible proof.

But he didn't. I don't want to say that he deserved his fate, because that implies a value judgment, but it certainly seems like a probable consequence of the way he went about his investigation.

I never liked Ned much anyway. His "honor" always struck me as a pose. Honor is like a nickname. It has to be bestowed on you. You can't tell everyone that you're henceforth going to be called "Ace". You don't act in a particular way because you're an honorable person; you're called an honorable person because you act in a way that people deem honorable. It's a small distinction, but I think it's an important one. If you have to make a big deal and constantly puff and posture about it, well, then there is probably less there than meets the eye.

Personal honor is a good thing, but a good leader should never place his personal honor above the good of his people. Being responsible for any number of people means making compromises and acting in ways you may find distasteful. There's a line near the end of Avatar the last Airbender that always seemed to sum this up very well, when the pacifist main character is seeking advice about how to remove the threat represented by a tyrant: "Here is my wisdom for you: selfless duty calls for you to sacrifice your own spiritual needs, and do whatever it takes to protect the world."

Plus, his honor slips when it's convenient for him. (I'll just edit your last will and testament so it's a little more convenient for me, Robert. You don't mind, do you?) I assume he had to be in violation of his sacred oaths when he marched to overthrow Aerys. And anyone willing to throw the kingdom into a bloody civil war by backing Stannis, an able wartime commander, but the very definition of lawful evil alignment, is not a good man, full stop.

Farking Ned, man. Boromir should march on over and play hacky sack with your head.

The Losers are still losing, but Ned Stark is finally a head
Robb is similar. He's honorable, when it's convenient for him. He puts his own needs over those of his people, and it comes to bite him in the ass in the end.

(Every day on my way into work, I pass a sign for Frey smiles, and this is what I think of)

Edit. Can't believe I left this out. It's one of my favorite scenes.

"No. They hate you because you act like you’re better than they are. They look at you and see a castle-bred bastard who thinks he’s a lordling." The armorer leaned close. "you’re no lordling. Remember that. You’re a Snow, not a Stark. You’re a bastard and a bully."

"A bully?" Jon almost choked on the word. The accusation was so unjust it took his breath away. "They were the ones who came after me. Four of them."

"Four that you’ve humiliated in the yard. Four who are probably afraid of you. I’ve watched you fight. It’s not training with you. Put a good edge on your sword, and they’d be dead meat; you know it, I know it, they know it. You leave them nothing. You shame them. Does that make you proud?"

Jon hesitated. He did feel proud when he won. Why shouldn’t he? But the armorer was taking that away too, making it sound as if he were doing something wrong. “They’re all older than me,” he said defensively.

“Older and bigger and stronger, that’s the truth. I’ll wager your master-at-arms taught you how to fight bigger men at Winterfell, though. Who was he, some old knight?”

“Ser Rodrik Cassel,” Jon said warily. There was a trap here. He felt it closing around him.

Donal Noye leaned forward, into Jon’s face. “Now think on this, boy. None of these others have ever had a master-at-arms until Ser Alliser. Their fathers were farmers and wagonmen and poachers, smiths and miners and oars on a trading galley. What they know of fighting they learned between decks, in the alleys of Oldtown and Lannisport, in wayside brothels and taverns on the kingsroad. They may have clacked a few sticks together before they came here, but I promise you, not one in twenty was ever rich enough to own a real sword.” His look was grim. “So how do you like the taste of your victories now, Lord Snow?”

Part of the reason I fell out of love with Joss Whedon's writing is that his characters are kind to each other, but anywhere from dismissive to hostile to anyone outside their little clique. And if someone is nice to you, but "rude to the waiter", they are not a nice person. No one ever called them to account on their hypocrisy. Martin, partially through the virtue of the rotating POV manages to avoid the pitfall of protagonist centered morality, and the work is that much stronger because of it.

In the books, the Red Wedding was foreshadowed to a much greater extent than it was in the show. With the show, you can kind of see odd hints dropped here and there that something bad is on the horizon. With the book, it was like "How could you possibly miss this?!"

The series is extremely well put together, and it's the actors from the show I imagine when I read the books. Even the smallest roles range from professional to outstanding. Peter Dinklage, in particular, stands out. He gives consistently phenomenal performances. Likewise, Gwendoline Christie is superb. It had to be difficult to cast actors in those roles, which are in large part defined by the physical characteristics of the characters, but they nail it. They're as good as anyone and better than most on the show. Joffrey is also great. It can't be easy portraying such a loathsome character. 

I could watch this all day

Did I say everyone was great? There is one unfortunately exception. Emilia Clarke is terrible. She has the flat affect of the recently lobotomized, and her performance compares unfavorably to a block of wood. When she's upstaged by Khal Drogo, whose only instructions from the director were "Scowl harder!", there's a real problem. I grew to hate the character in the books. With Daenerys, it seems like Martin is guilty of what he so ably avoids with the rest of the characters. Her victories never seem earned. She's got one story arc, repeated about a dozen times, with Ser Jorah, Khal Drogo, Selmy Barristan and Daario. "Hi, Daenerys, I think you're so swell that I'm going to solve whatever problem you're facing right now and then dedicate the rest of my life to serving you." Ugh. It's like watching someone DM for his girlfriend.

The final scene of the third season, where Daenerys frees a bunch of slaves, was somewhat troubling. They spanned a large variety of races in the books, and my understanding is that they were played mostly by people with dark skin because that's what the available extras looked like where the scene was filmed. Still, Daenerys is as white as they come, and I'm not especially comfortable with the implication that these beknighted dark people needed to wait for Mighty Whitey to come and free them.

Other things: On arriving, Robert mentions offhandedly that Winterfell is as big as the rest of the kingdoms put together. Big, empty and cold? Sounds like Alaska. I guess that makes Ned Sarah Palin.
Winter is coming, Herp Derp

 Listening to first book again, it's very clear the Lyanna and Rhaegar are Jon Snow's parents This isn't subtext. It's practically text. It's possible that Ned is his father, in the same way it's possible that time-traveling Batman is his father. Nothing explicitly contradicts it, but there's no evidence for it, and it leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

Sansa. She's eleven years old in the books, and fourteen, I think, in the series. It's not hard to believe a highborn eleven year old acting in that way. It's hard to imagine Sansa growing up to become the person she was in the harshness of Winterfell, as neither of her parents seem inclined to shelter her from the harsh realities of life in Westeros. I kind of like Sansa. She's the anti-Daenerys, suffering through no fault of her own. (Yeah, she made some bad mistakes early on, but most of her problems are not of her own making.)

It's funny. There was a time when I hadn't ever seen the show, and I was discussing it with my friend Tim, who had never read the books. He had no idea how the names were spelled and I had no idea how they were pronounced. Heh heh.

Looking forward to the Fourth Season.

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