Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Munchausen Weekend

Game of Thrones - "The Rains of Castamere"

Well, that happened, then. Spoilers, duh.

The problem with Game of Thrones as it has developed over the last three years - and, for you commenters, I still haven't read any of the books so please keep the comment section clean - is that while it is undoubtedly an enjoyable program, it suffers some in the translation from the source material. I can say that without having read the books simply by virtue of the fact that the limitations of episodic television impose restrictions which seem as if they would be significantly less restricting on the printed page. Allow me to explain.

(As an aside, perhaps the most annoying facet of Sunday's viewing experience was the quiet smug crowing among book fans over just how badly the TV fans were losing their shit. People who have read the books have known about this twist for, what, ten years? So they knew exactly what was going to happen, and they knew exactly how much people were going to freak the fuck out. Which is only fair, I suppose, but still vaguely reminiscent of your asshole dad gloating because he knows you're getting a bike for Christmas and you have to wait to find out. At some point you just want to stab people yourself, because the idea that nerd secrets represent a form of godlike power is simply disgusting.)

Anyway. The problem is that while the books seem to have built a massively devoted fanbase out of readers who are more than happy to enjoy the ways in which Martin inverts the audience expectations regarding genre conventions, I think it is fair to say that the jury is still out as to just how this kind of relentless subversion of expectation will play out for a larger audience. For a readership weaned on Tolkien, Terry Brooks, and Robert Jordan, yeah, having the "bad guys" consistently win and then have the bad guys turn into less-bad guys and then having all the supposedly main plots overwhelmed by suddenly important side plots may seem thrilling and novel. But I wonder at what point this kind of narrative legerdemain will exert an erosive force on the television audience.

Book fans have said that, in the books themselves, this surprise - while no less significant - was slightly less crushing than on TV because the characters involved were never viewpoint characters. Fair enough. But the TV show could never adopt that kind of formal device. On TV what we have instead was a group of characters who the audience - perhaps due to a lifetime of conditioning regarding how genre conventions in these stories work, perhaps not - identified as being "the good guys," the central heroes of the story, who were slaughtered in no uncertain terms. Now, I can easily see how that might make for a dynamite book, but that kind of perspectival shifting doesn't have a great track record of working well on television. Look at how much shit David Chase gets after all these years for ending The Sopranos on an ambiguous note - that was a smart, effective ending that a large part of the show's fanbase was simply unprepared to deal with because they had been weaned to expect narrative closure. To that end, I mean, yeah, sure, the Red Wedding was unexpected and quite effective and I can appreciate the kind of cajones it took to sell the series knowing full well that the end of the third season was almost guaranteed to be a traumatic experience both for fans as well as the network itself - but it was also sad in a way that I don't entirely credit to the show's favor. It's frustrating, is what it is, and based on a completely unscientific survey of folks on my Twitter feed who are more familiar with the books, it seems that more than a few fans feel the books themselves fell into steadily diminishing returns after this point.

Now, there are plenty of hyperventilating fans out there who are swearing to swear off Game of Thrones forever, and while we can probably assume that for most people this is going to mean about as much as your lifelong X-fan swearing off Marvel because Wolverine got turned into a woman or something, there's still an element of severity to this reaction that strikes me as unusually vociferous. Remember when Marvel kept saying back in the last decade that something they put into a comic that maybe 200,000 people might ever read was going to "break the internet in half"? I think what we saw Sunday night was what it looks like when the internet actually breaks in half, when millions of people across the planet come to a plot point that makes them stand up in unison and scream "DO NOT WANT" at the top of their collective lungs.

So is it possible that, given the success that the show has achieved to date, Game of Thrones might be in trouble? This was never an avoidable problem: this was hardwired into the books themselves and the creators of the show could never have skipped such a central plot twist even if they had wanted. But look at the economics. A show like Game of Thrones, in order to be a success, has to be a massive success. It can't afford even a minor backlash from its core constituency. It's not a cheap show. Regardless of how popular it is, the show still has multiple seasons worth of story to cover - what, six or seven seasons worth if they continue at this pace? So we're looking at 9-10 seasons, total, representing a significant outlay of capital on the part of HBO. If the fanbase flags and ratings and DVD sales droop ever so slightly at any point - even if the show remains successful on a more modest scale - the network might have to reevaluate their calculus for future seasons. Because it's not as if HBO has ever cancelled in mid-story a well-received show with a fervent fanbase that still cost too much money to continue producing.

Or, to put it another way, The Sopranos could afford to piss off its audience because the show was already over. Game of Thrones still has a long way to go, and a lot of fans who are feeling, rightly or wrongly, that it might not be a good idea to continue to care about a show as doggedly committed to shock as this one. Time will tell!

Mad Men - "A Tale of Two Cities"

Three episodes in a row have centered on Don imbibing mind altering chemicals: "The Crash" had a needle full of speed, "The Better Half" had a flask of booze, "A Tale of Two Cities" had hashish. In "The Crash" he fixates on Sylvia (hopefully gone for good, her character and storyline were boring) and experiences flashbacks to his youth in the whorehouse, wherein the old "mother / whore" dynamic is literalized. In "The Better Half" he has a tipsy fling with his ex-wife, a surprisingly pleasant experience for the both of them that is nevertheless erased and (almost) forgotten by the next morning. "A Tale of Two Cities" shows Don confronted by the not-dead-yet specter of Megan, carrying the already-dead specter of the child she miscarried. People who complain about the frequency of drug episodes in this season need to pay attention to numbers - one is a lark, two is a trend, and three is a pattern.

There are connections to be drawn here, all the more significant that the show has conditioned us away from thinking that alcohol has any special properties whatsoever. But in "The Better Half" liquor is a big deal: Don and Betty talk about getting it throughout the early part of the episode, and when Don finally scores a bottle the first person he runs into is Betty, with whom he shares. It's not perhaps as overt as the strange drug trips that bookend it, but worth pointing out considering just how pervasive substance abuse on the show actually is.

Roger's acid trip last season actually brought about positive changes in his life, perhaps not in terms of changing his behavior but definitely in terms of self-perception. Don has had three episodes in a row devoted to showing him how relations with women completely dominate his subconscious, and offering him some degree of hierophantic insight into his own worst impulses. Ultimately, we've reached the point in the series where Don literally has to change or has to die: after three successive specters (living or imagined) reflecting unsatisfied facets of his history, he can either move forward or end up drowned. Or get shot by one of the husbands he's cuckolded.

I've seen it speculated in some circles that Don might conceivably die at the end of the season - that would certainly be interesting, but surely one Red Wedding is enough for a single season of television. I was struck the other day, seemingly out of the blue, by the similarities between Mad Men and The Sandman, of all things, two fictions dedicated to dismantling some form of a classically masculine ideal by forcing their protagonists to face the prospect of changing or dying. Morpheus chose to die rather than change. I think it would be far more interesting to see Don sincerely change and try to become a better person.

It's not a story we have a lot of familiarity with on television - we have a lot of experience seeing men fail to change being brought low as a result. (That's one of the reasons I'm always frustrated by The Sopranos in hindsight - Tony couldn't change, and by the end of the run his refusal to change had become tiresome and heavy-handed.) But stories of men trying to change in order to become better - men wanting to genuinely be better, not just to be seen as better (which you could probably say was Don's preoccupation heading into this season) - well, that's a far more exciting possibility.

If we want to think of Don in terms of the Dante references from the first episode: he's seen hell and been brought face to face with the roots of his sinfulness. I think the Purgatorio is a far more interesting book than the Inferno, for the reason that we get to see a vision of how people become better, through abandoning sin and making the conscious effort to seek forgiveness. If this season is Don's Divine Comedy, will he eventually look up to see the stars?


adam farrar said...

I don’t follow the books or the show but I like watching people’s reactions to it. I don’t know if you saw but a few weeks ago one of the producers said he thought the show would run seven seasons. After this episode his quote reads very differently: “I would hope that, if we all survive and if the audience stays with us, we'll probably get through to seven seasons”,97922/

moose n squirrel said...

I'm not that concerned about Game of Thrones's future - and I definitely don't think comparisons to Deadwood or Carnivale are warranted. Those shows were always cult phenomena - appreciated by critics and a small but devoted fanbase. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, is a gigantic hit - a bigger commercial hit than The Sopranos was, certainly. And while the show is expensive to make, it's been steadily pulling in viewers - when it premiered, it had 2.2 million viewers; this season it's frequently hit above 5 million. The show could shed half a million viewers and still be the cable television equivalent of printing money.

And honestly, I don't think it's going to lose that many viewers regardless. The show already demonstrated it could pull off the "let's kill the heroes" trick and get away with it when they killed Ned Stark - and I'm going to go against conventional wisdom and say that Ned's death was a LOT more of a shock, and more of a blow to readers'/viewers' innocence, or what have you, then the Red Wedding was, simply because it happened first, at a time in the narrative when no one was expecting this sort of thing, while the notion that Robb was going to die, and that very specifically something horrible was going to happen at the Freys' place, had been telegraphed for weeks.

Beyond that - the following of a TV show, and more broadly a piece of serialized entertainment, at a certain point becomes larger than the following for individual characters or elements of that entertainment. How pissed off were readers when Gwen Stacy was killed off? Pretty pissed, I bet. I'll bet there were some who even quit reading Spider-man as a result. But a lot more had developed an attachment to Spider-man - the comic, not just the character - more than they had to Gwen Stacy, and wanted to see what happened next. That's how it was with the audience of Martin's books, and that's how it'll be with the audience of the TV show (audiences which aren't nearly as different as anyone involved would like to think). The challenge of the show will not be whether it can survive killing off some of (but not nearly all) of its more likable characters, but whether it can navigate and adapt the next few books in the series in a way that's satisfying and entertaining, given that, by all accounts, things get bloated and clunky from here on out.

moose n squirrel said...

Eh, that line reads to me like the producer of a TV show talking fairly sensibly about the titanic task of producing seven seasons of a TV show the size and scope of this one: it's big, it's expensive, it's got to be hell to put together on a good day, and no one on any series can take for granted that the audience for a series will still be around for them four-to-six years from now (which is basically what he's talking about there).

moose n squirrel said...

Departing from your actual post to pick up on your astute twitter observation re: GoT: This series has always had a, shall we say, problematic depiction of race, all throughout the Daenarys storyline - it started out rough when it was all about noble savages, and hasn't gotten much better now that's it's progressed to a vision of slave liberation that's all about white people freeing benighted, passive natives from above. Part of this seems to stem from racist baggage inherited from the genre which Martin never bothered to examine or subvert the way he's tried to subvert so many other genre tropes, and part of it just seems to stem from the bullshit Americans are told about our own history, in which white dudes just magnanimously freed helpless black slaves for the hell of it, and Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, and the history of slave rebellions leading up to and throughout the civil war never happened.

(And speaking of Mad Men, I have serious problems with the way Matt Weiner has handled race on that show, as well - although that's part and parcel of the trap Mad Men has fallen into, namely, of trying to tell the story of the social movements of the 60s from the perspective of wealthy white executive class - a class which was totally incidental to that history, when not completely antagonistic to it. It's quite possibly the least interesting perspective to take on the period, and one of the reasons why Don Draper and company have become so boring this season - everything interesting is happening offstage, on their televisions, while they smoke, furrow their brows, and think about new ways to sell ketchup.)