Three Thoughts on Game of Thrones Season 4

Game of Thrones - Season 4I watched the fourth season Game of Thrones over the last two days. It is not as good as previous seasons, I think. The biggest problem is that there are a lot more action sequences and I frankly don’t think they are well directed. They are trying to render huge scenes, but they are still ultimately limited to one on one combat. So there is a disconnect. Also, the characters seem only to get more psychopathic over time. Even little Arya is beyond a mercy killing. (You have to question what the point of vengeance is if it will just turn you into the people you hate.)

But I want to discuss three issues that came up for me while I was watching the show. Let me start with a kind of pleasant one. There are only two main characters who are consistently likable. And they just happened to be the book worms: Tyrion Lannister and Samwell Tarly. One is a dwarf and the other is fat. But if the series has heroes, they are them. I’ve noticed this among any number of other writers. I think it is very common for writers to be book worms, short, and fat. So who better to be the only characters in a psychopathic world who have empathy. This is probably the only way that Game of Thrones is true to reality. That, and the fact that dragons don’t really discriminate between sheep and humans.

The primary story in the fourth season is the murder of King Joffrey and the trial of Tyrion for doing it. But here’s the thing: everyone knows that Tyrion didn’t do it. And in particular, his sister and father use the murder to frame him just because they don’t like him. That’s all fine — that’s done every day in America. But in so doing, they aren’t the least bit interested in who actually did kill the little tyrant who all viewers were thrilled to watch die. But why is this? As I said: this happens all the time. Why do people react to injustice (not that Joffrey’s death was an injustice in an objective sense) with an irrational anger rather than a desire for, you know, justice? I really don’t understand — at least apart from the observation that people are irrational. And if that’s the case, the cause of justice is doomed.

My biggest problem with both and third and fourth seasons of Game of Thrones is the story of Ramsay Snow and his sadistic torture of Theon Greyjoy or “Reek.” The show has clearly crossed the line at times between drama and torture porn. What’s more, Ramsay’s fortune has done nothing but grow as a result of his behavior. The worst that tends to happen to truly vile characters in the series is that they have a quick death. Given that almost all the good (by the standards of the show) characters get the same, it is not very satisfying. So even if Ramsay eventually does die, it won’t much matter.

But the character of Reek has a larger significance. He has been totally broken and is now totally devoted to the psychopath who castrated him. But I don’t think that Reek is all that special. We are all Reek. He is not only what society turns us all into; he is what society proclaims is the best that we can be. Every time I hear someone gushing about how America has “the greatest healthcare system in the world,” I think of Reek. These are people who can’t see reality — who are so wedded to the approbation of their captors that they are willing slaves. Here in America, we call it, “Patriotism!”

I suspect that I will continue on with the fifth season of Game of Thrones. I want to know what happens to Tyrion and Sam. And also Arya and Varys. And there are some minor characters who I may never see again like Osha. But mostly, I don’t much care what happens. In the end, someone will unite the Seven Kingdoms. And it doesn’t matter in the least who it is. So I guess that’s another way that Game of Thrones reflects reality.

14 thoughts on “Three Thoughts on Game of Thrones Season 4

  1. It’s odd — I’ve read all the books, and I haven’t the slightest idea about half of what you’re referencing. I do remember the poisoning of Joffrey, because it involved Tyrion, Martin’s best character. (Spoiler alert: he’s still alive at the end of the last book. His ultimate fate is WTF knows.)

    I forget these plots so fast. I have a younger brother who’s into fantasy novels, and I read them to have conversation subjects that don’t involve politics. (This doesn’t work, as fantasy novels inevitably include war, so “what’s your opinion on our war with . . .” Sigh.)

    Strange how unmemorable much of the story is in these books. In “GoT” the basic story is cruelty, which probably appeals to liberals and conservatives both; one group can decry it, the other say “this is how it’s always been and always will be.” If Martin has a deeper point than the fascination with cruelty, he’s taking his time getting there. My guess is, he does, but isn’t quite clear how to show it without negating the mean-spirited “realism” of his setup.

    Of all the books my brother’s made me read, I kinda like some by Joe Abercrombie. Like all fantasy authors, he deals in broad strokes; characters are delineated as “good” or “bad” or “let’s see” by every word they speak or motion they make. Nobody is allowed to be regular and human and a mixed-up mess of things. At his best, though, Abercrombie has kind of a Sergio Leone vibe about his stuff, where the broad strokes are kinda cool. “The Heroes,” about a battle where there are no heroes, is addictive, and I remember what happens in it much more than I do “GoT.”

    If I had to recommend a fantasy book at gunpoint, I’d recommend Diana Wynn Jones’s “The Rough Guide To Fantasyland.” It’s a fake tour guide through all the cliches of fantasy fiction. Such as, your book will have a map inside the front cover, and you will be required to visit every single place on that damn map.

    Of course, Pratchett covered this territory with such brilliance that pretty much every fantasy writer typing today is hugely climbing uphill. Fantasy works at its best when it parallels and comments on reality. Tolkein appeals because doomed characters in a world rife with dark history succeed against all odds, unlike the real-life friends Tolkein had who died in another stupid European war. “The Heroes” and GoT work because they suggest new ways of looking at our literary conventions; war is noble, ambition is a virtue.

    No room for ambiguity in fantasy novels, unless it serves a plot point. Ambiguity is always an end to plot means; am ambiguous character keeps you guessing what will happen next. There’s no flawed, but great, FDR — even Nixon, for that matter. When I read Tolstoy or Eliot, I thought of myself as inhabiting every character. (When I read Malcolm X’s autobiography, I thought the same way, even though it was only one character.)

    Pratchett’s books break almost nearly by 20% fifths into sloppy, competent, likeable, really good, and brilliant. The really good and brilliant ones make what every other fantasy author does seem irrelevant; how the hell do you keep writing a million-word saga about how competing kings in the Middle Ages were, um, kinda nasty, when a contemporary is dashing off riffs on religion, science, academia, the goddamn Post Office, and pretty much every other thing?

    • I’m really not a fan of fantasy. At all. That’s why I liked Pratchett. Also, from a writer’s standpoint, it seems like of the ultimate cop-out. Anything can happen. You want dragons? Fine. You want spaceships? Fine. Want to throw in a chapter of Ibsen? Go for it. Everything is permitted.

      There are two bits of writing I’ve gotten from great writers. When I saw a lecture by Kurt Vonnegut, he said that every novel needed an Iago. Fair enough. But I’m incapable of it. If I have a character who hates the Moor, he’d better have a reason for it. Goethe said that he was incapable of writing true tragedy. That’s why he found a loophole in Faust. I’m with him on that. What these two things have in common is character ambiguity. As a reader or a writer, I’m just not that interested in stories of good and evil. And this is not a new thing. Go back to the Iliad. Neither Hector nor Achilles are good or bad. They are decent men doing their best. That is what we ought to be reading.

      I think that Martin is fundamentally a Romantic writer. It is just that instead of creating good and evil characters, he’s mostly creates evil characters. I don’t especially like it, but I follow along. Although I can’t imagine going through the books.

      You are right about the endlessly complicated plots. Each time I get a new season, I have to use Wikipedia to get back up to speed on what is going on. Pratchett’s plots are far easier to follow.

      • “Everything is permitted” is fine, if you’re using that logistical freedom to actually do something with it. Okay, dragons show up, or characters can wave their hands and create beams of zappy power. Why? In so much of “imaginative fiction” (the preferred term these days, it includes sci-fi), characters have zappy magic hands because the genre insists on catering to frustrated people who imagine, that if the rules of our universe were bent just a bit, they’d be In Charge. Or be saved by a nice wizard who’s In Charge. Or just live in a fantasy somewhat more fair than our own.

        I’m down with “Star Trek” and “Doctor Who” fans, who want a better universe. GoT utterly befuddles me. There’s a serious mean-spirited appeal to that franchise, which I don’t care for. I plowed through the books to see what happened to Tyrion. (Although I did nastily like the dragon lady having slaves kill all their masters — I dunno if that was in the TV version.)

        • Oh, and you like “everything is permitted” just as much as any of us do — you like the better “Twilight Zone” episodes. It’s not imaginative freedom from normal reality that sucks, it’s crummy writing that has all of imaginative freedom at its disposal and relies on “dragon shows up in act 3.”

          • Fair enough. GoT has this problem that mostly it is just a medieval adventure story with fairly minor fantasy elements. I’m really not that clear why the fantasy elements are there at all. Twilight Zone does, however, stay pretty wedded to science fiction. And Night Gallery to horror. And yes: I love them both.

        • I think I was just referencing Alamut. But it seemed to apply. A good writer can make anything work. What I find interesting is that it all comes down to drama. So ultimately, there is no difference between the Harry Potter books and the Three Investigators books.

          Yes, I like the dragon lady too. Her sense of vengeance is totally understandable. If you are to have a despot, she’s the one to have. I’ve long thought that she would sit on the throne at the end, because her story (at least in the television series) gets the least attention. But now it seems like it is going to be Stannis — a character so boring that it is only thanks to Wikipedia that I even know who he is. Of course the important question is: who cares? I know I don’t. As with you, I want to know what happens to Tyrion. And I want to know what happens to Sam. I doubt any fans of the series actually care about the geopolitical outcome of it.

          But you are right that it is mean-spirited. That’s especially true of the callous way he just kills off characters. Much of it is totally random and just thrown in to give it the feeling of reality. But I want reality in my characters, not in my plots.

  2. At this point, it is a cliche; however, the books are better. In an earlier comment, I said that I identify with Tyrion Lannister. That is still true, I float around and set one foot in the world of privilege and one foot without. With that said, I identify the most with Jaime Lannister. Thankfully, my life does not involve incest, homicide, mutilation or regicide.

    Jaime was not only richer than the other kids, he was bigger, taller, stronger, prettier, more charismatic and he was a more gifted leader than the other kids. I was in the same place as Jaime. I once believed that the greatest thing that a man could do was to promote himself. In time, I have come to see that a man of means and power and talent must promote peace and mutual respect amongst mankind. To the extent that the Medieval mind allows such, Jaime promotes such.

    By Season five we will have seen a great deviation from the books so what I say shall not be a spoiler. Jaime goes to the Riverlands and he uses all of his wits to end two conflicts in a largely bloodless manner. He meets the victims of his father’s wars and he develops an empathy for all of mankind. In a “Feast for Crows” and “A Dance With Dragons,” I see how a good man in his late 20’s and early 30’s comes to see a shared humanity in the World, despite his past Affluenza. Tyrion is the best character but I am stuck with the fact that Jaime is the character who is most like myself.

    • You point out something I hadn’t noticed in the books/show; how the viciousness of power in the story affects people disgusted by today’s Affluenza. Being poor and hating inequality have been with me my entire life, I was class-conscious decades before I knew what a “class” was, even as a little kid. So I don’t think of being outraged at privilege; it’s there, it’s a serious thing, it’s wrong. I’ve never believed otherwise. (I mean, I have learned SOME things as a grownup, I swear! But the evils of vast inequality I knew pretty early on.)

      For audiences who’ve come around to hating inequality in recent years, and there’s a lot of them, there’s much in GoT that probably feels devastatingly true. (And, yeah, I wanna know what happens to Jamie, too. He’s added to my small “wanna know what happens to them” GoT list. If new books ever get finished, which I’m doubting at this point.)

      • Is something wrong with Martin? Has he stopped writing? I’m not up on this stuff.

        All art is ultimately about the time that it is written. Of course, nothing ever really changes. It is always the best of times and the worst of times.

        • No, he’s fine. It’s just hard to see him managing to finish the series, because each book gets longer and introduces more side plots. Fantasy authors tend to get caught up in what’s called “worldbuiding,” imagining every detail of their made-up universe. But many fans like that, so I’m not criticizing . . .

          • Ah, yes. But I had read that he said some fans had figured out how he planned to finish the series. This isn’t surprising, given that many fan doubtless spend as much time thinking about it.

    • I don’t believe in spoilers. Well, maybe for a film like The Sixth Sense, but even there not too much. I should write about this in more depth some time. But the main thing is that knowing what’s going on leaves you more able to appreciate the journey. At least for me.

      I too find Jaime a noble character. I particularly liked how his character developed with Brienne and how we got to see things from his perspective — especially his reasons for killing the Mad King. But then, I was feeling fairly sympathetic toward Cersei too until the fourth season when she was just horrible.

      It is much harder to be Jaime than Tyrion. I know from my own experiences that it is my hardships that have helped me the most in empathizing with others. When my life was really good, I was much more of a jerk. So in that way Jaime is very noble, because I really fear what a horrible person I would have been with similar advantages. Joffrey? Hopefully not that bad.

  3. I don’t know how this really animates audiences’ reactions to Game of Thrones, but I too have noticed the iniquity in connection to contemporary life. Only half-joking, I like to say to people that the choice is between democracy and the society depicted there, in which the lives of commoners has no value to the powerful. Either you have democracy and the rule of law, or you have Game of Thrones.

    • The beliefs of the aristocracy in GoT is not really any different from what it was in the time of King George III or King George VI based upon the movies. That’s also true of the Mitt Romneys of the modern world. And I think that we are all generally inclined to believe that whatever life we are used to is the life we deserve.

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