Meta-Thoughts on Genre and HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’
I admit it, I’m completely addicted to the new HBO series Game of Thrones (based on the series by George R. R. Martin). I’m a total sucker for anything like Tolkein or Herbert’s Dune series, and there’s elements of both here. So, count me in, guilty pleasure beyond belief. If there’s political intrigue between warring forces in a setting like yet unlike our own, I’m down. It’s always nice when you come to something expecting to be entertained, and get something a bit more substantial.
Either way, though, my academic engine has difficulty shutting off, and so here I am with some meta-notes, my own attempt to try to understand precisely the formula that makes something like this so addicting and even interesting.
There’s no question to me this is the the smartest drama on TV at this point, if not the best. Many of the characters are quite complexly layered, as is the dialogue. The slow revelations of backstory and people’s moves resembles fully Deleuze’s formulation of ASA’ plotting from his analyses of cinema (basically, show actions whose contexts are unclear, then resolve this only slowly).
It also seems the mini-series format could compete oneday with the feature-length film for the ‘serious’ film category, reintroducing the long-form, serial format into real adult storytelling (10 hours in a season here), in the manner of Dostoevky, for example (whose masterworks like Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov were serialized!). So, I’m not only hooked, but curious as to how it all works.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still mostly just entertainment. For example, the heroes tend to be folks who have strict codes of honor, but sometimes break the rules when their emotions get the best of them (ie: Ned, Robb, and Catelyn Stark, Jon Snow). There’s also a few traditional nasties (ie: Tywin, Jamie, and Cersei Lannister, Joffrey Lannister-Baratheon), and unfortunately this nastiness is often represented as related to a non-standard form of sexuality, thank goodness not homosexaulity, rather, incest, but still (ie: Jamie and Cersei Lanniester, Viserys Targaryan). And Falstaff even shows up (ie: the doomed King Robert Baratheon)!
That’s all certainly predictable. Only one character so far is even potentially gay (Renly Baratheon, and that aspect has been really played down), and there’s not a person of color anywhere to be seen in Westerros, aside from the mainland Dothraki and the Lamb-people, who are pretty standard ‘orientalist’ caricatures. As with most medieval dramas, its Euro-America’s way of dreaming of a post-racial future by going pre-colonialist, even pre-crusades. Eek.
I forget exactly where I read that perhaps the reasons why medieval (ie: Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones) and ancient Roman (ie: Spartacus, Rome) dramas have appealed so much to the mass psyche these days is that these periods represent times in which which action, loyalties, and traditional family structures (though not contemporary sexual structures!) were relatively transparent, as opposed today, a period in which capitalism’s hall of mirrors makes it impossible to know what sort of actions have what consequences, what different social roles mean, etc.
Basically, pre-capitalist nostalgia. So even with lots of scheming, it still clear that swords make blood, even as there’s lots of play to understand what a social role means, since the contexts and stakes were much clearer than today, but perhaps its the dissolution of them in all the scheming which makes them resonate so nicely with today. Such narratives also often have ways of getting around issues of race, at least as they manifest in America, and hence provide some wish fulfillment. On all fronts, it’s clear to me that the popularity of ‘men with swords/women in court’ dramas is that it provides a counterpoint to the much more ambiguous needs of our age, even as it reflects this nevertheless.
Some do better than others with various issues. HBO’s True Blood, though not medieval, does a decent job with sexuality, Starz’s Spartacus has a varied track record on sexuality and race (which I’ve addressed at length here), and Starz’s Camelot recently had a decently prominent African-American woman character in Morgan Le Fay’s Court, even if it only had a token African-American warrior in Arthur’s court. Not that simply putting in diverse cast changes things in the real world, nor should a series be judged by how much it superficially resembles a Bennetton ad. But I’m pretty convinced these sorts of shows have a wide if indirect influence on our culture, so I’m hoping for them to push the envelope, and with any luck, in non-superficial ways. A lot to ask, but I think TV has influenced social issues before, and will again.
And not all is quite so regressive so far in Game of Thrones. Firstly, the show really plays with genre conventions, in that characters often are much more than simply good or bad, and even bad ones are often given a motivating backstory that’s more than mere filler. Anything that weans us away from completely good/bad characters helps move us further away from demonizing ‘others’, and so, I think is generally a good thing. Because ultimately, the real ‘bad guys’ in the world tend to look and think like we do, and having a sense of this is I think a start to being an ethical actor in today’s world. That is, just being ‘one of us’ (ie: a ‘good guy’, ‘American’, ‘Stark’, etc.), doesn’t mean one can’t do bad things, and so we all need to be vigilant. Granted, this point is pushed mildly, but anything is at least a start.
What’s more, main characters stand as decent a chance of getting knocked off as anyone else. There’s a realism that’s refreshing, and perhaps more true to the period than other series. It’s easy to see that Martin based his story loosely on the War of the Roses, and Westerros on medieval England. And I think realism also dilutes the fantasized version of war that keeps making people so willing to send it to other people. While again, this is only emphasized so much, it’s at least an improvement from standard fare.
There’s also some truly strong and smart women (ie: Catelyn Stark, Danaerys Targaryan, the mildly gender-bending tomboy Arya Stark, Cersei Lannister), really shrewd political subplots (ie: Varys, Baelish, the Lannisters), and even one character who works around a prominent disability with his sharp mind and tongue (Tyrion Lannister, with perhaps Bran Stark, Jon Snow, and Sam to follow in his wake, each with their own ‘disabilities’ to overcome, depending on how that word is conceived, physically, socially, etc.). The healer from the Lamb-people also shows quite shrewdly the costs of war, and modes of resistance, in a form that’s simply not the norm for mainstream television.
Ok, I’ll stop trying to find redeeming qualities in what I essentially look to for fun. Though I do think it’s imperative to analyze what we find fun. Some way this dilutes the fun, but I think it usually increases it, mutates it, etc.
But, for a moment, and only a moment, I’ll put essential social issues aside. Because while society does seem to be exploring some issues in these dramas, often regarding sex, identity, and power, I also find myself curious as to how it works on a mechanical level. That is, why is it all so addicting, in terms of sheer plot and character construction? Is there a form that describes why I’m addicted, nearly regardless of the setting, location, and most other specifics, so long as everyone is relatively attractive looking, and there’s enough action and scheming? What makes this all so addicting, even for someone like me with a high tolerance for long, boring art-house films? Why do I look forward to a show like this nearly as much as anything during the week?
That is: what is the recipe for my own affective manipulation?
While I realize the dangers of separating form and content, here it goes, if only for a moment, a few notes, a recipe, even, for putting together something like Game of Thrones on a formal level . . .
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1. we see actions with unclear context, leading to curiosity
2. layers of questions/crises: what will happen when x occurs?
with different timelines for each layer
identification draws us in to care about this in relation to specific characters
3. essential context to these actions, ‘backstory’, filled in slowly
only as needed to make sense of current actions
in a manner designed for maximum suspense/revelation
4. each episode we get only a few more puzzle pieces
with one big piece at the end of the episode
designed to reveal/yet hide
seemingly little details revealed early on have huge consequences later
as the context for them is revealed
5. violate enough contemporary narrative conventions
so that we don’t know what’s going to happen yet
but stay within enough to keep us relatively secure
6. have characters that are not universally good/bad
whose motivations are fundamentally unclear
7. as you get to the end of a season, layer in new questions/crises
seemingly throwaway scenes always give some new info
so no throwaway scenes
8. and like good tragedies, we see characters make impossible choices
and set wheels in motion
in timelines related to others, yet usually a surprise occurs
to create another closing than is expected
9. in terms of content, beautiful/powerful people
family and nation issues intertwined
a message that heroes hold themselves to higher moral standards
yet break the rules for love of those close to them, not selfish gain
of course, these could be the same thing simply viewed from differing perspectives
this is how society sells itself the notion of ‘the good war’
yet via the distance of time and place
we can vicariously enjoy it
without it hitting too close to home