“The House of Black and White”
April 19, 2015
As noted last week, my reviews of Game of Thrones have shifted to The A.V. Club, but I will continue to link them here for regular readers. Warning: These are reviews intended for book readers, so if you want to know absolutely no small details about the story as told in the books, you may want to steer clear.
Game of Thrones – “The House of Black and White” [The A.V. Club]
Game of Thrones has always been interested in identity, being as character-focused as it is, but “The House Of Black And White” is particularly invested in the crisis of identity at this point in the story. The changes in Brienne’s storyline emphasize a theme common across most of the show’s characters at this point in Martin’s books, and which plays out in nearly all storylines investigated here. As Tyrion and Varys travel to Meereen—by way of Volantis—the conversation turns to Tyrion’s leadership as the Hand of the King, and Tyrion’s complicated relationship with power; when Selyse interrupts Shireen and Gilly’s conversation about the former’s greyscale, it’s a conversation between a girl defined by her disease and a girl defined by being a “wildling,” regardless of how they might self-identify. Given how much of the show is—for better or worse—characters talking, identity conflict is a key way for the show to draw meaning from those conversations.
“The Wars To Come”
April 12, 2015
Over the past four seasons, I’ve very much enjoyed writing about Game of Thrones here at Cultural Learnings, and have been privileged to have a wide audience for those reviews. The subsequent conversations have been among my most rewarding, and I want to thank everyone who has read, commented, or otherwise engaged with my reviews during that period.
However, I was given the opportunity to take over from my friend and former colleague Todd VanDerWerff writing the “Experts” reviews for The A.V. Club, and therefore there will be no more reviews here at Cultural Learnings. It also means that if you are someone who has not read the books, these reviews may potentially be something you do not want to read—while they will not explicitly spoil future events, they are written for those who know what’s coming, and may occasionally make references to foreshadowing and other forward-looking developments. I apologize for this, but it’s a byproduct of the opportunity.
However, given that the comments can be a bit more fast and furious over there, I will be posting a link to the review each week, and I encourage anyone with any specific questions or comments to leave them here, and I’m happy to create a side dialogue if anyone desires it. Thanks for reading, and hopefully you’ll still find something of value in the new reviews in the new location.
Game of Thrones (experts): “The Wars To Come”
“We have reached a stage where reader and non-reader are closer than ever before. Each group comes to the text with similar levels of expectation, shaped by their respective understandings of this world and its characters. Readers, admittedly, still come with expectations that are based on what unfolds in the novels past this point, but those expectations have been destabilized such that some of them hold no clear authority over the expectations that non-readers have developed on their own. Where once readers had lengthy emotional connections to the text that outstripped those only recently encountering the story, non-readers may now have been diehard fans for four years, growing in number as the show evolved into a mainstream phenomenon. And while there are more readers than ever before (I certainly didn’t use to see people reading the books on public transit before it premiered), they’re a different kind of reader, one for whom the show was likely the entry point.”
Last night, The Jinx ended its six-episode run on HBO. The documentary series came to a conclusion with a stunning sequence of events, building a tremendous amount of suspense: would the second interview with Robert Durst happen? What would happen in that interview? And what would happen after that interview, when Robert Durst will have been confronted by the second “Beverley” envelope?
If you were watching live, the answers to those questions were an escalating series of events, culminating in a final scene that had me yelling at my television. However, if you weren’t watching live, that yelling may have been directed at The New York Times, who pushed an alert to their app users and wrote a breaking news tweet quoting Durst’s words and promoting their reporting on their connection to Durst’s Saturday arrest in New Orleans. It could have also been directed at the various outlets—Vulture, Buzzfeed, etc.—who subsequently tweeted the news as news, all of whom fielded complaints about “spoilers” from Twitter users.
In a piece this morning at Vulture, Ben Williams suggests that this marks “spoiler-alert” culture reaching “peak absurdity”:
“The key difference here is that The Jinx isn’t fiction. It is a docu-drama about a real man who is very probably a murderer multiple times over and whose cases have been covered in the media for decades. When a famous murder suspect all but confesses, it is news, and the fact that the confession happened within the confines of a television show does not mean that that news becomes subject to the same etiquette as the latest Game of Thrones killing. Because that’s fiction, and it doesn’t really matter.”
Beyond the fact that I would contend Durst’s statements in the finale of The Jinx in no way constitute a “confession,” Williams’ point is well-taken: the fact that Andrew Jarecki’s documentary series is making a contribution to an ongoing news story independent from the series itself means that the New York Times reporting is less spoiling the series itself—which they clearly had advance access to, in order to support the reporting—than they are extending the series’ impact to a broader audience, most of whom did not watch The Jinx (which drew only 446k viewers in the first airing of last week’s episode).
And yet while Williams’ distinction between a real life criminal investigation and Game of Thrones is valid, and would clear The New York Times in a court of ethics, I also think that the New York Times—and the other publications in question—could have crafted an equally provocative headline that did not actively spoil the events of the series’ final scene. I believe that the news could have been framed in a way that still broke the news in question without revealing in concrete detail the climactic moment of the series.
When I dropped in on an episode of The Leftovers at The A.V. Club earlier this season, it was cathartic: after weeks of watching but not writing about the show, it was nice to have a space to confront the series’ opaqueness.
But as I return to confront the finale, I’m wondering if I had it all wrong. On the surface, The Leftovers struck me as a series that begs us to analyze it, full to the brim with characters with uncertain motives building toward something and yet nothing at the same time. What’s the deal with Wayne? What drives the Guilty Remnant? Those questions at first seemed to bear fruit as it related to the themes of the series: even if we ignore the existential question looming over the entire series, these other questions funnel back into the meaning of the departure and accumulated considerable meaning as the season wore on.
That meaning was a smokescreen. It was a powerful one, granted, but as The Leftovers concludes I’m struck by how little separates a show that begs us to analyze it from a show that resists all analysis. Say what one will about Lost, but it wanted us to be invested in its mysteries, and even in the end sought to give purpose to our investment even if that failed to appeal to all viewers. By comparison, however, The Leftovers built a house of cards that it knew was going to burn away by the end of the season, leaving behind characters we relate to because they too were caught up in the construction. They lived through what we lived through, and must equally confront the landscape that revealed itself when the house burned to the ground. It was in those final moments that the show finally revealed its hand, and for the first time as an entire series became legible, and real, and open to the kind of analysis it had nonetheless inspired while resisting such visibility.
And the result was compelling, if also guilty of building a neater circle than it necessarily needed to.
Season 4 and the Death of Reader Certainty
June 15, 2014
Here at Cultural Learnings, I’ve been writing Game of Thrones reviews intended to be read by both those who have and haven’t read the books, but they’re unavoidably written from the perspective as someone who has. For the most part, this hasn’t been a big problem, as I’ve never been one to be too concerned with the series deviates from the books.
I remain mostly nonplussed by changes, but they’re tougher to avoid after a fourth season that has shot the books full of holes on numerous occasions. Although the season by and large ended without an outright cliffhanger in “The Children” (which I reviewed in full here), it nonetheless has left book readers in limbo when it comes to at least one major development. It’s an important turning point for the series as an adaptation, and one that will test whether or not those book readers are willing to embrace an environment where the books are no longer a reliable indicator for the story about to unfold, and where their position as arbiters of knowledge is in question.
[Warning: I’m speaking to Book Readers here, so unless you want to risk spoilers for future seasons, stay away if you haven’t read the books.]
June 15, 2014
“You remember where the heart is?”
Each season of Game of Thrones has been an exercise in selective adaptation, but its fourth season has been a feat of adaptive engineering. Working primarily with material from the third book but leaning heavily on the fourth and fifth in certain storylines, it is the season that has emphatically taken the “book-to-season” adaptation comparison off the table.
At the same time, though, the season has been organized around key climaxes taken directly from the third book in the series. Moreso than in other seasons, you could tell the writers were having to stretch storylines to maintain the timing they had established, creating material to flesh out the scenes on The Wall to justify the Battle of Castle Black taking place in episode nine or finding things for Arya and the Hound to do so that their scenes in “The Children” wouldn’t take place until the end of the season.
By and large, I would argue the show was successful in making the season work despite the delaying tactics. This is in part because the storyline in King’s Landing, arguably the most consistently substantial, was built for this timeline, clearly marked by two major events—the Purple Wedding and the Mountain vs. the Viper—with plenty of political intrigue in between. The other reason is that even if the material at the Wall was a bit thin in ways that even last week’s epic showdown couldn’t make up for, the season as a whole maintained a sense of forward momentum. Did this momentum extend to Bran, forgotten for multiple episodes, or to Stannis and Davos’ trip to Braavos? No. But it extended to pretty much every other storyline, and makes “The Children” the most climactic finale the series has managed yet. The inconclusiveness of “The Watchers On The Wall” may have been frustrating, but it guaranteed that there was still lots to resolve even for those of us who aren’t sitting at home with checklists of what’s “supposed” to happen in the episode.
And “The Children” resolved some of it, left some of it untouched, and by and large served as one big—and mostly effective—teaser for what’s to come.
“The Watchers On The Wall”
June 8, 2014
“Blackwater” was about convergence. It was the inevitable collision between Stannis’ claim to the throne and the Lannister powers controlling it. In truth, Stannis’ side of the battle was pretty thin, sketched in without a whole lot of detail beyond Davos and his son. It was really about how Stannis’ attack changed the power dynamics at King’s Landing, whether through Cersei’s steely resolve, Tyrion’s ingenuity and intelligence, or Joffrey’s cowardice. At a stage when this was still ostensibly a show with the Stark family as its protagonist, it was an early example of the richness of stories in King’s Landing, capable of carrying an entire episode on its own.
“The Watchers On The Wall” wants to be “Blackwater.” Neil Marshall has returned as director. Mance Rayder’s not dissimilar to Stannis, in terms of development at this stage in their respective narratives, an idea more than a person. We know characters on both sides. And like that episode, “The Watchers On The Wall” is exclusively focused on the attack on The Wall, eschewing other ongoing narratives in favor of the battle at hand.
The problem with this comparison is that I don’t know why I care about The Wall. Actually, that’s a lie: I know why I care about The Wall, which is the fact that I’ve known where this story is going from the beginning, and have been anticipating it playing out. But for those who aren’t book readers, this season has often struggled to make The Wall an integral part of this narrative. The season went through a lot of effort to flesh out the characterization. There was Jon’s attack on Craster’s Keep to keep the action quotient high and to build more content into the storyline to help delay the battle until the season’s climax. There was moving Gilly to Mole’s Town so she could offer perspective on the early phases of the attack. There was sticking with Ygritte and Tormund to preface the viciousness of the Thenns. And there was Ser Alliser and Janos Slynt conspiring to keep Jon Snow from preparing for the imminent attack in the proper fashion.
The problem is that none of this built momentum. It established the various players that are central to the battle, but it didn’t make it feel important, even though this is undoubtedly an important battle. It just paled in comparison to the immediacy of Tyrion’s plight, or the looseness of Arya and the Hound, or a range of other stories that were undoubtedly more dynamic. This doesn’t feel like the culmination of a season-long storyline. It feels like something that just got delayed, a logical climax to the season (and the book most of the season is based on) that required padding to land in this position.
The result is an episode that has to prove itself without the benefit of strong connections to the characters, or season-long storylines waiting for a climax. “The Watchers On The Wall” needs to be a self-starter, building anticipation for and delivering action that the episode’s pedigree has promised. And while a visceral piece of action filmmaking and a spectacle worthy of “Blackwater,” it proves less a climax so much as long-delayed rising action to finally bring The Wall into play in the season’s narrative.