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Game of Thrones – “Walk of Punishment”

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“Walk of Punishment”

April 14th, 2013

“A person could almost be forgiven for forgetting we’re at war.”

“Walk of Punishment” opens with something of a comedy routine. Edmure Tully is attempting to send his father off to the afterlife with a flaming arrow, but the arrow misses. And then misses again. And then misses again. It’s only then that his uncle, the Blackfish, steps in to fire the arrow necessary. Edmure is made to look the fool, the Blackfish is made to look like a man who suffers no such characters, and our first glimpse of Riverrun has served its function, in part, through comedy.

Of course, it’s also a funeral, which makes its comedy somewhat dark. It helps that we don’t actually know much about Hoster Tully, a character in the books and more of a symbol in the series. It also helps that the scene works the joke perfectly: I resisted laughter on the first miss, found it on the second, and felt the tragedy sneak back in on the third. The scene never feels at odds with the moment or the episode around it except when it’s supposed to feel like it’s at odds with the moment because, well, it is. A world of war and tragedy is not a world without comedy, but rather a world where comedy is rarely allowed to continue unabated for very long.

Catelyn’s quote above, spoken to the Blackfish, captures Benioff and Weiss’ approach to lightening the mood in Westeros. At any given point, there are characters in situations where they could forget about the gravity at hand, where the inherent humor of human interaction overwhelms the threat of widespread conflict. Sometimes it’s Talisa tending to two young captives, wanting to keep them from thinking about the world around them; sometimes its Tyrion wanting to give Podrick a gift for his loyal service. And in a previous time it was Jaime and Brienne, alone on the road, bantering their way toward King’s Landing.

But banter, like all men, must die.

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Game of Thrones – “Dark Wings, Dark Words”

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“Dark Wings, Dark Words”

April 6th, 2013

“I try to know as many people as I can. You never know which one you’ll need.”

When HBO’s decision to order Game of Thrones to pilot was first announced, I went back and began rereading the books in preparation. At the time, I wrote a piece thinking about how the structure of the books—specifically the chapters told from specific characters’ points-of-view—would prove a challenge, but how there remained thematic through-lines that could be capitalized upon.

More recently, Benioff and Weiss have said that they aren’t structuring the show around themes, suggesting they’re for grade school book reports. It’s a silly comment, and I will continue to remark upon clear themes that run through both the series and the novels on which that series is based, but I do think that they’re right on one point: this is not, primarily, structured as a thematic story. And yet, given the fact that the narrative has become dispersed from a clearly outlined conflict—the War of the Five Kings—into a scattered collection of individual narratives, a question is raised: how exactly is the show being structured?

To suggest that Game of Thrones is a character-driven show is not exactly groundbreaking, but I was struck during “Dark Wings, Dark Words” how the show is actually organized by character. In thinking about some of my pre-air thoughts regarding how audiences might respond to some characters better than others, I watched the episode thinking through one primary question: who is this scene about? While the fragmentation of the narrative means that no single episode will be about one single person, the focus of a given scene nonetheless often falls to a single character, and not always the character we might presume it to be. And while there is a collection of new characters introduced in this week’s episode, none of them feel like their scenes were about them so much as the existing characters they were meeting. At the same time, meanwhile, some characters whose existence was once defined by their support of other characters have become subjects of their own storylines, even if their role within the larger narrative hasn’t necessarily changed.

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Season Premiere: Game of Thrones – “Valar Dohaeris”

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“Valar Dohaeris”

March 31st, 2013

“You’ve got to invent a story about where the ship is going and why.”

As Sansa and Shae look out on Blackwater Bay imagining where the ships are going, it’s hard not to think about the last time we as an audience watched the ships on Blackwater Bay. “Blackwater” brought a striking amount of clarity to the show, its tight focus clearly defining where the ships were going: Stannis Baratheon intended to take King’s Landing, because he believes himself to be the one true king of Westeros.

As Game of Thrones returns for its third season, such clarity seems long gone. As Robb notes, his men haven’t had a real battle in weeks, their “war” more of a glacial march in search of Lannister men more likely to “raze and run” than fight in the open battlefield. Stannis has retreated to Dragonstone to burn men alive in sacrifice to Melisandre’s lord of light, in hopes they will provide a path forward. Westeros is still at war, that much is certain, but the terms of that warfare are as muddled as they’ve ever been: much as the Narrow Sea separates Daenerys from her place on the Iron Throne, the other would-be Kings are equally unable to directly and openly lay claim to the title.

And yet they keep moving. Indeed, outside of those who remain at King’s Landing, nearly every character or group of characters are on the move, although it’s not always clear where they’re moving to precisely. “Valar Dohaeris” might reintroduce us to a collection of the show’s characters, but it’s an introduction that mostly finds characters exactly where they were before. The result is a premiere that lacks excitement not because things don’t happen, but rather because there’s little new information to hint toward what will happen next, relying on more general anticipation—often, to Sansa’s game above, of the viewer’s invention—as the narrative moves at its own pace.

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Review: Slivers of Satisfaction – Game of Thrones Season Three

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Review: Game of Thrones Season Three

March 25th, 2013

At the conclusion of watching the third season premiere of HBO’s Game of Thrones, I realized something: despite the fact that I had enjoyed the premiere a great deal, it hadn’t featured a single scene with one of my favorite characters.

Of course, this is not a new problem for the series, what with its intense narrative fragmentation: Jason Mittell’s analysis of the series’ “scenic rhythms” spoke to this at the end of last season, wondering whether this helped explain his different responses to the first season (which he binged on) and the second season (which he watched weekly).

I’ll leave it to Jason to actually break down the number of scenes/foci in the second season premiere, but it’s safe to say the show remains committed to telling a sprawling collection of stories in season three. What’s different, though, is that there is no longer—or rather not yet—a central conflict that anchors the narrative in the way that Ned Stark’s plight in King’s Landing or the War of the Five Kings offered in previous seasons (even though the latter is still ongoing, albeit with fewer kings). While the kingdom ostensibly remains at war, the events that open the season place everyone in a sort of holding pattern, leaving each story to create its own purpose and momentum.

These two challenges—an increasingly fragmented narrative and a lack of a clear overarching story arc—are not insurmountable; in fact, I found neither to be particularly concerning, and found the first four episodes of the season to be a most welcome return to Westeros. However, the circumstances under which I viewed these episodes mitigated these factors in ways that not all viewers will have access to. As someone who has read the books, I know where these narratives are heading, and can therefore read purpose and momentum in ways that those ignorant to those futures may not. And as someone who is lucky enough to receive advance screeners for the series, I had the luxury of popping in the second episode when I discovered one of my favorite characters doesn’t appear in the first one, something that those watching weekly won’t have.

What I’m suggesting, I suppose, is that Game of Thrones has evolved in such a way that I’m unsure if my experience with the show’s third season can be successfully mapped into a more generalized “review.” I thought every storyline was well executed, I enjoyed every episode, and I was left wanting more, but I also left wondering how much those responses were shaped by the context in which the episodes were viewed, and if we’re reaching the point where reaction to the series will be divided more starkly among devoted viewers and more casual audiences.

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A Box of Influence: Game of Thrones, Social Media, and the Uncertain Quest for Cultural Capital

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A Box of Influence: Game of Thrones and Cultural Capital

March 22nd, 2013

Two years ago, HBO shipped a collection of critics, celebrities, and cultural observers a box designed to introduce them to the world of Westeros. The box, which I wrote about in detail here, served as a sensory journey into what was at that point a new televisual universe, one HBO hoped would become a centerpiece of their brand identity. By sending the box out to “opinion leaders,” the hope was that they would share their experiences with the intricately crafted artifact with their readers or followers, setting the tone for a series sold in part on its lavish production design and attention to detail.

KendrickBoxThis month, HBO shipped a collection of celebrities a box designed to initiate them into the world of Westeros. However, the Westeros of 2013 is different than the Westeros of 2011. If the “Scent Box” of 2011 was designed as an artifact of the fictional Westeros, the various personalized “Influencer” boxes being sent to people like Mindy Kaling, Anna Kendrick, Bruno Mars, Jaime King, Patton Oswalt, Stephen Colbert, and Conan O’Brien are artifacts of the pop cultural Westeros. If the 2011 campaign was designed to establish the authenticity of Game of Thrones’ fictional world, the 2013 campaign seeks to reaffirm Game of Thrones’ status as a cultural phenomenon as its third season premiere beckons.

While the first campaign was largely heralded as a sign of HBO’s commitment to the series’ mythology and helped associate the show with quality discourses valuable to a premium cable channel, the latter campaign has been met with some criticism (although not by the celebrities themselves, most of whom have not been shy about performing their fannish [and NSFW] response to the delivery). To paraphrase sections of my Twitter feed in the past few weeks, HBO is effectively spending thousands of dollars to send rich celebrities personalized gifts to promote a show that is already wildly successful and likely to run for many seasons, all while smaller shows like Enlightened are canceled due to a lack of viewers (and, tied to this concern, a lack of promotional support). In addition, picking up on a discourse that was not uncommon during the initial campaign, some fans simply wonder why “celebrity” fandom is more valued than their own: one fan at WinterIsComing.net wrote “This is really unfair. Why do celebs get this sent to them? We’re the fans. The real fans.”

InfluencerInsideHowever, the “Influencer Box” reflects broader shifts in how television success is measured: even since 2011, the perceived value of Twitter and other forms of social media has dramatically increased, even if the industry as a whole remains uncertain as to how to monetize that value. HBO’s decision to turn Game of Thrones loose into the world of celebrity self-disclosure reflects their belief that the best strategy to draw new subscribers is not just to promote the show itself (which they continue to do), but rather the idea of the show as a social media event. While the Influencer Box features the first two seasons on Blu-Ray, ostensibly encouraging those who receive or read about the box to watch the series, it also includes “exclusive extras which the owner can use on their social media sites to show off their fandom,” which HBO is now extending out to the “real fans” through a collection of site-specific giveaways on sites like WinterIsComing.net or Slashfilm. While reminding viewers about the third season premiere is the stated goal of the box— as demonstrated by the “scroll” that accompanies the box urging celebrities to promote the March 31st return date—the larger goal is informing the world that Game of Thrones is bigger than just a television show.

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Fleeting Footholds: The 2012 Primetime Emmy Nominations

The 2012 Primetime Emmy Nominations

July 19th, 2012

While Cultural Learnings has certainly been put on the backburner as I spend my summer studying, my willpower to keep myself from writing about television is at its weakest during Emmy season. While you would think that an early analysis of the leadup to the nominations and a piece on the nominations itself—focusing on Downton Abbey’s successful transition to the Series category—over at Antenna would be sufficient, I found myself hitting the site’s word count limit while still having a whole collection of narratives left to play out.

Accordingly, there are two points I want to make here. The first is the way in which this year’s awards demonstrate the capacity for a show to fall completely off the radar, and the other is what this year’s awards mean for the different networks and channels who are always looking to retain a footing within the race for nominations.

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Nickel and Dimed: Two Cents on HBO’s The Newsroom [Review]

“We Just Decided To”

June 24th, 2012

I saw all of the tweets about The Newsroom leading up to its debut. I saw them build with excitement around its beginnings, and then I saw them increase in volume while splintering off into numerous factions in the months leading up to its premiere. With some shows, screeners go out and very little is said about them within the critical community, with any chatter confined to backchannels. With The Newsroom, though, the conversation couldn’t help but spill out into public, and it became almost a rite of passage for critics to announce their opinion of the show so as to line up into certain camps.

This isn’t abnormal, precisely: whenever critics write a review, they are stating their opinion and implicitly entering into a particular group of critics who felt a particular way about a particular series. However, everything about the critical discourse around The Newsroom has been explicit, at least following it on Twitter: this is partly because of the show itself (which is divisive), and partly because of creator Aaron Sorkin (who has a divisive history), and partly because of the show’s would-be relationship to the sociopolitical. Without suggesting that Aaron Sorkin has actually made a television show that will change the news media and those who bear witness to it (which he has not, just so we’re entirely clear), the fact that he wants to renders critical evaluations into sociopolitical evaluations for some, with the rejection or acceptance of Sorkin’s worldview becoming a reflection of the critic’s own.

I don’t believe this to be true, of course, and have not read into—or read, actually—any of those critics’ reviews. When I realized that I would be going into The Newsroom tonight with the rest of the viewing public, I chose not to read the various intelligent, well-reasoned, divisive reviews of the series in advance; I knew I was going to watch it, and Twitter had already told me that the show is a case of “Your Mileage May Vary,” and part of me wanted to escape the discourse of Sorkin, and the media, and worldviews in favor of a more simple question.

Is The Newsroom an effective television pilot? A recent Facebook thread featuringprofessors/grad students discussing potential pilots to screen for students in a Television class got me thinking about this. On one level, you want to show students something great, something that grabs their attention and potentially sends them off to watch the rest of the series: we had a number of students do this with Friday Night Lights this past semester, for example. However, you could also show them a failed pilot (like David E. Kelley’s Wonder Woman, which I know the folks at the Good TVeets Con recently watched) and ask them where they think it went wrong.

While both strategies have merit, and are probably easier ways to communicate how pilots are intended to work, part of me wants to show them The Newsroom, which manages to succeed and fail in the same moments. Everything that works about The Newsroom is also everything that doesn’t, as Sorkin’s powerful use of momentum means we never have time to stop and connect to something more than a feeling that may not last as long as the show might like. I am aware that too much ink has probably been spent on the show already, and I’m likely repeating things many others have said, but I can’t deny that answering even this simply question left me plenty to say about The Newsroom.

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Season Finale: Game of Thrones – “Valar Morghulis”

“Valar Morghulis”

June 3rd, 2012

“You’re not the man you’re pretending to be. Not yet.”

Last season, Game of Thrones ended its penultimate episode with a shocking moment. With the swing of a sword, Eddard Stark was dead, and the ecosystem of the series had changed forever. The finale, “Fire and Blood” was largely left to pick up the narrative pieces that were left behind, selling viewers on a show without its lead. As a result, last season’s finale became about journeys forward: Tyrion’s journey as the King’s Hand, Robb’s journey as King in the North, Dany’s journey as the Mother of Dragons, Arya’s journey back north with Yoren, Bran’s journey as the Lord of Winterfell, and Jon Snow’s journey beyond the Wall with the Night’s Watch.

By comparison, “Valar Morghulis” has a greater burden to resolve ongoing storylines, with more of the season’s climax left to be explored given the contained explosiveness of last week’s “Blackwater.” While any simplistic analysis of the season’s narrative would identify the battle in Blackwater Bay as the season’s climax, the disjointed nature of the various journeys means that each character has been headed towards their own climaxes which were promptly delayed by last week’s events. Dany is still looking for her dragons, Jon is still a captive of the Wildlings, Arya is on the run from Harrenhal, and Bran remains hidden in his own home as Theon reigns over Winterfell. And these are only the storylines that we could identify most cleanly, as we could also consider Jaime and Brienne’s journey, or Robb’s relationship with Talisa, or any number of other threads that “Valar Morghulis” is expected to contend with.

For the most part, however, “Valar Morghulis” follows the example of last year’s finale, largely focusing on pivoting towards future storylines. This is not to say that it is anti-climactic, with Dany’s storyline in particular reaching a strong conclusion and the final moments of the episode delivering the equivalent thrill to last season’s reveal of Dany walking out of the fire with her dragons around her. Indeed, both episodes also spent a lot of time with characters taking stock of what has happened, settling on a course for the future, and then largely disappearing as other storylines took over.

The difference, though, is that there is something more substantial to take stock of. These characters are all older, mostly wiser, and each more clearly placed on a particular path. If last season’s finale was designed to solidify that these characters are not simply meant to live normal lives, consigned to a life at the heart of this conflict whether or not they choose that life, “Valar Morghulis” was about how that experience has changed them, and how the beginnings of their journey will prepare them for what’s to come.

It may be the same structure, in other words, but the result is a stronger finale, and a good burst of momentum into a third season.

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Game of Thrones – “The Prince of Winterfell”

“The Prince of Winterfell”

May 20th, 2012

“One game at a time, my friend.”

Tyrion speaks true, in this instance: for the last two weeks, I’ve prioritized my professional responsibilities over what are ultimately my personal ones, meaning that writing about Game of Thrones became infeasible. Accordingly, one might expect that I’d have a lot to say about “The Prince of Winterfell,” the eighth episode of the show’s second season, given that I haven’t had a chance to say anything about the two episodes that came before.

However, in all honesty, we are reaching the point in the season where I don’t have a whole lot to say. With very little being introduced, and with so many storylines fully in motion, evaluating the show at this point is difficult: we have not yet reached the climax, the moment where everything is meant to coalesce, but we are also past the point where new ideas are being introduced. “The Prince of Winterfell” falls pretty much in line with what we’ve seen in the past few episodes, taking us mostly down a logical path toward what previews for next week position as the “Clash of Kings” that the season’s literary origins refer to.

Until we reach that point, though, the show is continuing to ignore Tyrion’s advice and tackle as many games as it possibly can. It’s a strategy that makes “The Prince of Winterfell” a wide-ranging episode which has to do a little work in a lot of places to get the show into position for the next moves in a whole new set of directions.

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Game of Thrones – “The Old Gods and the New” [Podcast]

“The Old Gods and the New”

May 8th, 2012

As I had noted on Twitter, and as many of you seem to have discovered after visiting the site yesterday, this weekend didn’t provide enough time to do a full review of “The Old Gods and the New” justice. However, David Chen at /Film and his podcasting partner Joanna Robinson were kind enough to have me on “A Cast of Kings,” their Game of Thrones podcast, for a discussion about the episode.

A Cast of Kings S2E06: The Old Gods and the New – /Film

A Cast of Kings is a podcast featuring recaps and reviews of each week’s episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones. This week, Joanna and Dave discuss the second season’s sixth episode, The Old Gods and the New. Special guest Myles McNutt joins us from Cultural Learnings.

It’s a lengthy and diverse discussion, ranging from more serious considerations of how the show has changed from the books to equally serious conversations about Ygritte’s strategic body movements. It’s quite a fun show, I thought, so if you want to know more of my thoughts on the episode it’s a fine way to spend roughly an hour of your time.

If there are any other issues you’d like to discuss about the episode, feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll hope to chime in. In the meantime, you could also head back to listen to past “A Cast of Kings” episodes.

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