Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Game of Thrones finally cheats

SPOILER WARNING: This post contains major spoilers about Game of Thrones from season one onward, but most particularly seasons five and six.

NON-SPOILER WARNING: This post is about television, not movies.

I wanted desperately to write about something that happened in Game of Thrones in the just-completed season six, which we are only just starting to watch (we're three episodes in, in case you're wondering what you can spoil in the comments and what you should avoid). But I didn't know where to find my perfect soapbox.

But then I thought, "Wait, I have a blog! So what if it's a movie blog, not a TV blog. It's my soapbox and I'll stand on it however I want to stand on it!"

Without further ado ...

From the penultimate episode of season one, Game of Thrones has been letting us know what kind of show it is. And that is, different from any show you've ever seen before.

As you may recall, that episode ends with the beheading of one Ned Stark (Sean Bean), heretofore assumed to be the show's hero whom we will follow for the next 12 or 13 seasons.

As that moment arrived, those of us weaned on traditional television and movies -- that is to say, all of us -- expected a deus ex machina to swoop in and save Ned from the executioner's axe. (Or was it a sword? That part I don't remember.) There was no way that the guy whose name appeared first in the credits was actually going to buy it less than one full season into the show.

Yet that's what happened. And from that moment, we knew we were in virigin territory. This show had cast us out into the unknown without a safety net. In short, anything could happen. No one was safe.

George R. R. Martin continued to maintain this unusual new status quo by killing off other characters we never thought could die. I mean, he'd already done it in the books, but for most of us that was not a consideration as we encountered A Song of Ice and Fire first and foremost as a television program called Game of Thrones.

But it wasn't just the killing of the characters. It was the impossibility of saving them through artificial last-minute plot devices. When a character was in danger, more often than not, that was it for them. Martin scoffed at the very idea of a deus ex machina, a hand of God that was going to come in and save our hero from certain doom at the last possible minute in the least credible way imaginable.

Well, Game of Thrones has finally given up this hard-fought conviction, this hard-fought distinction from other shows.

In other words, it has finally cheated.


Season five of Game of Thrones famously ended (I say "famously" because you had to work hard to avoid these spoilers) with Jon Snow stabbed in the chest four times, Caesar-style, and bleeding out in the snow. Given the lack of urgent medical care in Westeros, you assumed he was going to die, but just to leave no doubt, the light had pretty much left his eyes even by the time the credits rolled.

Shock. Horror. Sorrow. Amazement.

We didn't think Jon Snow was going to die, because even though Martin likes killing off the handsome pretty boys that profile as your typical hero (see: Rob Stark), he has expressed a kinship to the likes of someone like Snow -- he's the bastard in Martin's quote referencing his soft spot for "cripples and bastards and broken things." So when this happened, it looked like Martin was trying to out-Martin himself. It looked like he had decided that the show was one big game to him, one big exercise in trying to frustrate our assumptions. "You don't think I'll kill Arya Stark? You don't think I'll kill Tyrion Lannister? Well watch THIS!" And then maniacal laughter. (Note: those things have not actually happened. Not yet, anyway.)

Well, he didn't disdain us as much as we thought. But I'm kind of wondering if that's a good thing.

When Kit Harington's name appeared in the opening credits of the first episode of season six, I wasn't surprised. I mean, in the timeline of the show, Jon Snow's death had just happened. We'd at least need to see the corpse. And that corpse would be played by Kit Harington.

When it appeared in the second episode, I was a bit more taken aback -- but I thought, "Well, perhaps this is the episode with the wake."

As "the red-haired woman" (I don't know what her name is) attempted a spell that would bring him back from the dead, I started to doubt Martin's commitment to his own harshly realistic world view. But then I thought "It would be the ultimate Martin move -- giving us a bunch of attempts to revive him as a red herring, and ultimately ending with someone saying 'Yep, he's really dead.'"

So when I saw Snow make that time-worn "gasp awake, usually after everyone thinks you've drowned" move, I greeted it with a bit of a gasp myself.

Martin had done it. He'd capitulated. He'd brought a character back from the dead. He'd saved a character with an unbelievable Hail Mary that should have had no reason for existing in the plot.

Yeah, I was happy to have Jon Snow back. But I was more than a little surprised.

And I'm of two minds on how I feel about it. As I said, I like having Jon Snow be a character on Game of Thrones. (And seeing the traitors who killed him hanged until they were dead provided a certain measure of sweet revenge.) But it does seem like a case of Martin slouching toward the traditional. Yeah, this is a world where dragons exist and magic is a thing and not everything that happens can be explained. But it used to be a world that obeyed basic laws of biology pretty stingently.

The way the whole thing was staged seemed to lack a certain conviction as well. Sure, the red-haired woman is a bit of a shell of herself after all of her premonitions about Stannis Baratheon prove false. (And this post is making me realize that I don't know how to spell any of these character names -- except, er, Jon Snow.) But I expected a bit more fire and brimstone in an incantation that brings someone back to life. The whole thing seemed a bit limp and unconvincing.

This may not seem so much like a deus ex machina, since traditionally, that's to save someone right when all seems lost. But the same episode contained an instance of Sir Davus, holed up in that room inside Castle Black with a few loyal Snow supporters, about to be slaughtered until a cavalry of wildlings arrives at the last moment to save the day. I suppose stuff like that has been slightly more common on the show -- more common than, you know, bringing people back from the dead -- but the timing of this one highlighted its essential artirficiality.

Did Martin bow to pressure? Did someone at HBO say to him "You can't kill off Jon Snow, it's bad for ratings"? How much of this was written already, anyway? I can never keep track of where this show is relative to the books -- as far as I'm aware, fans have been waiting for a new book from Martin for something like 15 years.

It also makes me wonder if this means that Snow is now immortal. Once you've brought somebody back once, doesn't that undermine any future attempt to kill him? If they have to kill him again, someone really will need to step up and say "Yep, he's really dead this time."

Perhaps if his head gets stuck on a spike in King's Landing and his body is dumped somewhere in Mereen, only then will we have our definitive closure.

Well, I'll be glued to my TV to find out. And something tells me that the next seven episodes will go a ways toward making it all clear.


Don Handsome said...

Its not Martin this year! They're free falling outside the Martin playbook. FYI.

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