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!
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?