Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Game of Thrones Interlude: We Pause for Pure Analysis

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.

Wee paws?

 Geoffrey requested a bit more elaboration and analysis on my comments in the rewatches that Benioff and Weiss moving away from the books or past the books and how the show turns into a complete mess in seasons five and six (especially six), so here’s a bonus Game of Thrones post for your midweek enjoyment.

Martin described the changes that had to happen in order to move the story from the book to the screen as “butterflies.” Small changes that lead inevitably to bigger changes, until the “butterflies grow into dragons.” This is a very zen way of looking at it (though the overall tone of the post in question indicates that behind that zen is some deep disappointment in how the show is turning out), but it does skate over the fact that while some changes may have been absolutely necessary due to budget constraints and the differences in the way TV and books are able to show character development, there have been lots of changes that were completely unnecessary and even antithetical to the themes Martin conveys in the books. For the most part, Martin spends his time working against traditional tropes, whether those tropes are from medieval romance, Victorian medievalist romance, or fantasy; Benioff and Weiss have a really bad habit of going right back to those tropes instead of complicating or undermining them the way Martin does. I’ve talked about some of these themes in bits and pieces throughout the last 50 posts (phew!) on this blog, but let me pull a couple of them together here.

Toxic Masculinity
In A Song of Ice and Fire, Westeros is a land dominated by a patriarchal social structure with a thin veneer of chivalry painted over it to try to make it pretty. While a lot of attention is paid to how patriarchy is bad for women, Martin also explores how patriarchy is bad for men—they’re not allowed to be emotional, or kind, or gentle, or anything less than domineering and violent at all times. Yet they’re expected to act out chivalric values—protecting women and children, standing up for family, etc. Jaime really says it best in his “so many vows” speech—it’s truly impossible for men to live up to these expectations. And this leads to some serious trauma and emotional disturbances in the men, which of course they’re not allowed to express to anyone lest they be thought “weak.” Martin doesn’t shy away from that trauma, and it doesn’t go away by magic. Tyrion and Jaime are easily the clearest examples of this, coming at it from two different directions—Tyrion’s been abused his whole life and sees the system for what it is, while Jaime was (mostly) a paragon of the system, only to lose everything and be sent into a philosophical tailspin after losing his hand. Many other characters also exemplify the problems with this society—Sandor “the Hound” Clegane. Sam Tarly. Every member of the Kingsguard—which creates a clear tapestry of how awful a society that valorizes “typically male” attributes and looks down on “typically female” ones—especially when expressed by a man—is for the men.

Benioff and Weiss seem to have missed this point entirely. Instead, they treat the upper layer of the society—valorizing violence and “manly” behavior—entirely at face-value, missing the deeper layers of how damaging this is for the men. They do sort of hit how bad it is for the women, but they tend to boil that down to rape and sexual assault, ignoring the emotional toll it takes on women. This means they’ve completely failed to successfully adapt Martin’s thematic content with regard to men and patriarchy, instead going right back to portrayals of successful masculinity as violent and sexual. In order to be a Man in “Westeros,” you have to fight and have sex—however you need to. Hence the radical changes to Jaime’s storyline that ignore his trauma and massive introspection and remaking of his Self after losing his hand. Instead of trying to become a new person who can survive in this world without the combat and sexual prowess that he had before leaving for the Riverlands, Benioff and Weiss have him attempt to go back to being the exact same person he was, even if that means raping Cersei and having slapstick hijinks with the gold hand. They completely miss the fact that Jaime’s inability to take anything seriously through the first 2-3 books was due to his disillusionment and trauma after having to murder his king to save his father and the people of King’s Landing, and being vilified for doing the exact right thing.

This might even be worse with Sam, who’s one of the most damaged-by-the-patriarchy characters out there. Sure, his story hits the beats from the books more reliably, but the context for all of it is pushing Sam closer to the “ideal” man—Sam the Slayer, who killed a White Walker and a Thenn, who fights his own Night’s Watch brothers over a woman, who gets rewarded with sex, who steals his father’s family sword.

This attitude also spills over into the portrayal of women. Martin shows that women can wield power even in a patriarchy through politics. Not as visible politics as the men, of course—part of why Cersei spends so much time being frustrated, because she can’t be her father—but the more subtle politics of social gatherings, marriages, even sewing. In Game of Thrones, all of this is dismissed as girly and women are reduced to sex and violence just like the men; either they get what they want through having sex with or promising sex to men, or they kill people. Sansa kills Ramsay. Arya kills Meryn and Walder Frey. Brienne kills so many people. Cersei kills everyone else. Dany murders the entire upper power structure of the Dothraki. Those women who stay within the political framework—like Margaery—wind up dead, regardless of how good they are at the politicking, because someone else will just kill them to gain power (even if that makes no sense).

Which brings us to…

Not Like Other Girls
The rejection of female power and insistence that in order to be Strong™ women must act just like men is a major point of contention in my analysis of Game of Thrones. It’s not just that women are attempting to find any means to power and/or survival in a world that’s overtly hostile to them, it’s that there are only two ways for women to take power—and they’re intensely shamed for one of them. Benioff and Weiss restructure entire swaths of the story around this idea that “girly” things are less worthy, less important, and overall worthless.

Exhibit A: Talisa Stark, née Maegr. Talisa is every single thing Martin claimed was wrong with fantasy, the type of anachronism that annoyed him so much he purposefully wrote ASOIAF in such a way as to avoid said trope.

“Westeros isn’t medieval England but, from my readings in history, one of the things that impresses you is that the medieval mindset was very different and I’m trying to convey that. I think that is lost in modern fantasy. While they may be riding horses and living in castles, it is a very modern setting. You see peasants sassing princesses, religion being disregarded and lots of things that happen.”

In this case, Talisa sasses Robb, tells him all about how bad of a leader he is, stomps around battlefields without an escort (in a world that established early on that women are prey and at constant risk of rape), and declares that she didn’t want to plan parties or masquerades like the other Volantene noble girls, or to “play the harp, and dance the latest steps, and recite Valyrian poetry,” clearly dismissing these activities as lesser, just as Arya does throughout the series. As I mentioned while writing about this arc way back in seasons two and three, these things are important social glue, and part of the reason Westeros is unraveling is that the violence-oriented people are in charge and not listening to the not-violence-oriented people. This is a bug, not a feature.

Jeyne Westerling unfortunately doesn’t have a whole lot of personality in the books—she’s sweet, she’s desperately in love with Robb, her family is power-hungry—so apparently Benioff and Weiss decided she wasn’t good enough for show-Robb and instead gave him an anachronism who doesn’t know where the seat of her own new power is.

While Talisa is the most egregious example, like the Real Man problem, this crops up again and again in small but consistent ways that undermines the characterization of Sansa, Arya, Gilly, Margaery, etc. Arya, who thinks “most girls are stupid.” Sansa, whose slinky black dress is a sign that she “doesn’t want to sew anymore.” Gilly, who thinks her skills in cooking, cleaning, and sewing are “worthless.” Margaery, who seduces a something-year-old at least five, possibly ten, years younger than her instead of politicking her way into his good graces.

And this last one is partially because . . .

Politics are Hard
I have said (many many times) before, and I’ll say again, Benioff and Weiss are bad at writing politics. Even when the politics are handed to them on a silver platter, as they are for the first five seasons, they don’t seem to understand the intricacies of them and how they drive the overall narrative of ASOIAF. So instead, they water them down, thin them out, make the greatest political minds of the books into either ultimately ineffective schemers (Olenna Tyrell, Margaery Tyrell, Catelyn Stark), moustache-twirling villains (Petyr Baelish), or flailing idiots whose plans work because they’re lucky (Daenerys Targaryen, Petyr Baelish). The complications of running a city or a country are reduced to a few people being cranky and making really stupid decisions. This leads either to decisions that make no sense either narratively or thematically, or to massive shifts from the books either narratively or thematically (or both).

Not only are politics hard, they’re apparently not cinematic enough. Remember, this is a show for which a critic coined the term “sexposition” because they felt like they had to “spice up” the “boring” history and character exposition by including boobs. They abandoned Bran for an entire season because his training “wasn’t cinematic enough”—after declaring that they did Theon’s torture on screen because they didn’t want to just not have Theon on screen for a season the way he disappears in the books. They hauled Sansa out of the Vale and put her in a travesty of a borrowed storyline because her learning to be a political player and preparing to use the Vale forces to retake the North wasn’t cinematic enough. They reworked Jaime and Cersei’s relationship and didn’t send Jaime out to handle the Riverlands in season five because him dealing with his trauma, talking at Ilyn Payne while relearning how to fight, and putting the country back together wasn’t cinematic enough. Neither, apparently, was Adrianne Martell. Or the rest of the Sand Snakes. Or Doran’s plan to help restore the Targaryen dynasty. Or 75% of what’s happening in Meereen and Slavers Bay.

They’re Not Good Writers
As will become painfully obvious through season six, Benioff and Weiss are not good writers. When they leaned heavily on Martin’s dialogue and plot, the show shone. It had its problems, but they were the problems you’d expect from moving from one medium to another. When they decided that they knew better than Martin how to tell this story and ventured out into, essentially, fan-fiction, everything faltered. The storylines that aren’t Martin originals—Jaime in Dorne, Sansa in Winterfell—are just downright awful. The storylines that are watered-down Martin ones are nonsense—Jon’s entire arc past season three, Dany up through season five, Arya in Braavos. When they move entirely past the books, which they do in the next season, everything falls apart in a spectacular mess. The one good spot of writing they have in season six is borrowed from the first book.

And yet they clearly think they’re doing a wonderful job and staying true to the “spirit” of the books, if not the letter. Considering how purposefully they’ve shielded themselves from the public outcry about most of their changes—especially the more problematic ones—and how they keep getting showered with awards for some reason, I can see why they’d think that. But despite their claims that they loved the books and just want to do them justice, I strongly doubt their commitment to Sparkle Motion (okay, that one might be obscure. Go watch Donnie Darko. You’re welcome). A proverb I’ve seen on the Internet a lot lately is “grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man,” and I think that’s what we’ve got going here. They’re absolutely confident in their own abilities, despite the fact that they had never run a show before this and have a handful of other writing credits—movies and books—to their respective names. The popularity of the show has apparently murdered any humility they might otherwise have had, and it’s made the show the worse for it.

1 comment:

  1. Insightful analysis, and appreciated.

    One of the things that makes Benioff and Weiss's work worse is emblematized by something I heard on NPR the other day. In discussing the recent King Arthur movie and its failure, a commentator and a show host--the latter of which usually knows better--agreed that the series is effectively exhausting medievalism at the moment. I do not think they are correct in the assertion, of course, but I can see how people might be inclined to believe it.

    That a work that has so many problems--when it need not have them, as you note--is becoming the referent for the whole epoch, those of us who work with the medieval are in for a world of annoyance.

    More so than we already have.