Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Unified Theory of Game of Thrones

Yes, the title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but having seen several reviews, both positive and negative, as well as the first episode itself, I'm starting to feel like there's an elephant in the room. My Twitter friend Noel Kirkpatrick hits upon it to some degree with his generally negative review, in describing Game of Thrones' issues with the big three of race, class, and gender, but it also touches upon the discussion of the series as a representative on the fantasy genre, and even bigger than that, what makes for successful, classic television and storytelling.

It can be summed up as this: what is the point of the story?

In fantasy literature, in general, the point is the plot. It is meant to describe an interesting, entertaining, set of events. There are very few popular fantasy novels where nothing happens. It's not necessarily earth-shattering (although it often is), but the main characters are important participants in some kind of important event.

In more well-respected storytelling, or high-brow, or snotty artsy-fartsy crap, depending on how you want to describe it, plot is much less important than theme. Great stories are supposed to reveal something about the nature of the world or humanity or America or suburbia or men or women or what-have-you. While major events could happen, having the characters as the main participants in them is a sign of genre fiction, and frowned upon to some degree. Fantasy, where that's the entire point, thus exists at arguably the lowest level of that hierarchy, as that goddamn New York Times review demonstrated.

Which brings us to television. Interestingly, television, despite almost all of its series being "genre" stories (with the possible exceptions of Mad Men and Treme), television, or "quality television," is quite strong thematically. When you look at the shows which are considered part of the canon, such as it is, they almost all have tremendous thematic relevance. The critical king of television, The Wire, is all about theme, most notably, the crushing weight of institutions. But it doesn't stop there. The Sopranos is about the corruption of humanity. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is about growing up and dealing with responsibility. Even the great comedies have strong thematic elements. Arrested Development is about living with family. Seinfeld and later Curb Your Enthusiasm are about societal norms. Even The Simpsons has strong thematic elements, like its tendency to make fun of mob mentality in small towns.

On the other hand, you have shows that are considered trashy fun, like Glee or True Blood currently, where they're best described, as The Simpsons once famously said, as "just a bunch of stuff that happens." Glee of course tries to tack on morality, but it's so inconsistent that it undercuts its own ideals from scene to scene, let alone episode to episode. There are also the CBS-style procedurals, which occasionally have insulting theme descriptions (fascistic, hegemonic, etc) attached to them, but don't try to do much more than blandly entertain.

Here is Game of Thrones' problem: it is a story that is all plot. It's a great plot, to be sure, and some of the events can and will shatter your expectations of how plots are supposed to work (in a sense, it's somewhat similar to Joss Whedon's stuff, but we'll get there when we get there). But it's being treated as if it's a prestige series, to be placed in the HBO pantheon alongside Deadwood and Rome if not quite The Wire. But it doesn't have a strong theme. The theme might be emergent, that is, it slowly develops over the course of the show, and it will likely be subjective, changing from person to person. But that's not what makes for "quality television." And this may be Game of Thrones' biggest problem moving forward.

Note: my essential breakdown of story components is as such: all stories need good characters. Setting is where the characters live. Plot is what happens to the characters. Theme is what the characters learn/are supposed to teach the audience. Game of Thrones the book certainly has strong characters, which doesn't necessarily show up in the pilot, so there's plenty of hope yet.

Second note: I am not covering Game of Thrones in any official, paid, or week-to-week capacity. I would like to. If you know of anyplace that would be interested in taking me on to do it, let me know!


Ludwig Van said...

Like most people who desperately want to see more in "art" than there is to it, you inflate the importance of the thematic approach as well as its actual merits.
"The Wire" is probably the best television series produced to date, but it is not the best because of its theme, its sociological content or its political message. We do not learn anything from "The Wire" that a comprehensive academic study about drug-centered organised crime, its interaction with established public institutions and its socio-economical effects on the eastern United States could not teach us far more concisely, far more accurately, and far more reasonably. David Simon has not shown anything to us, he has not published a work of research that can claim scientific validity.
And if it would not depict such believable protagonists within such suspenseful situations - in other words: if it had bland characters and a boring plot - "The Wire" would suck. Simple as that.
The same holds for "The Sopranoes" and even more so for "Deadwood" and "Rome".
As for "Game of Thrones": We don't know the first season yet. But judging from the novels, there are several strong themes in this story, first and foremost the concept of power, both personal and abstract. Related to this are issues of conscience and conflict (like loyalty or love) as well as issues of social mores (like serfdom, opression and war). Most of all, as you observed correctly, it is a damn good story. Which, of course, is the most important thing.

Rowan said...

I agree with much of that in general, but I disagree with saying that the thematic elements of The Wire could have been done in a different form. They couldn't. Fiction has emotional resonance that only microhistory/case study/memoir of any non-fiction literary model can come close to matching. What makes The Wire work is that it takes that theme and connects it to a serialized story that only television can really provide. The medium and the message are harmonized in The Wire. I don't think they are with Game of Thrones.

Noel said...


I do not feel like I touch on the series as an example of the fantasy genre, but perhaps I do in a roundabout way. Yay for someone reading into what I write! It means I've made it! :) (And thanks for the link to the write-up.)

I like your points overall. Of course, knowing the opint of GoT for a n00b, as I am, makes it impossible to know that answer. The readers know the overall point (or at least have a better grasp on it, since Martin isn't finished yet).

But I think this becomes part of the challenge of the episode-by-episode, post-air review approach, and this is leading to frustration from the readers, who manage to fill in gaps or know how things planned out. They get to know the plot already, and are impatient for anyone to catch up.

Which is leading me to think I should hold back write-ups. Being told that my readings are off-base because of future events defeats the very nature of episode-based television, and is kind of dampening my desire to continue watching it live (as it were), and just wait to watch the entire thing on DVD in 10 years.

Which may be the best course of attack in the long run. If the plot is something that needs to be approached that way, then the week-by-week nature of television is not the way to watch this program.

That, or people who have read the books need to allow for notion that the property has changed in a pretty drastic way from a structural standpoint, as the end of your comment to Ludwig Van kind of notes.

I'll be curious as to your thoughts about the series as "quality TV" (an incredibly annoying term to me, one I want to die) as it continues. I think it has all the traits of The West Wing-style quality TV (which, really, is to say broadcast quality TV) (high production values, strong actors, distinctive voice), but perhaps its lack of an obvious theme will prevent it from hitting that cable-style quality TV level...? (If such levels even exist.)

P.S. Your comparison to Joss Whedon buys my good faith for at least 6 episodes.

Rowan said...

I think the simplest answer to your questions about treating this in an episodic sense is that it has to be treated as such. You can form your own impressions however you deal with it. But, as obnoxious as the idea of people saying "No, that's not how it is in the books" can be, they/we are also trying, in our annoying way, to be resources. We're saying that yes, that's understandable, but it's still worthwhile, or at least it should be.

Balefuego said...


I think you hit on a key point here when you brought up the issue with reviewing a long form story in a serial format. I had actually tweeted about that to Rowan a couple times the other day but it's even more of a hurdle with something like GoT where part of the audience already knows (or at least thinks they know, it is an adaptation - we'll see what makes the translation and what doesn't) how certain things play out.

On one hand I think the nature of Game of Thrones lends itself very well to a serial format, given the propensity for character/location jumping in the novel and Martin's own knack for the cliffhanger. (As a reader of the books, I've known exactly the moment a pilot episode would end since the day HBO bought the rights). On the other, as Rowan mentioned, Martin does like to play against expectations so that there are cases where he will play towards a certain trope or type before subverting those very expectations at a later point. This becomes problematic though when we are given just that initial impression as it's own separate piece of media, (particularly in episodic television where we have an entire week or more to digest those things and read excessively into them before being parceled the next piece).

So, on one hand, it can be in a story's best interests to provoke an initial visceral reaction, so that when that reaction is proved wrong it resonates that much more. But what happens when the initial reaction you desire proves too strong? Or has additional, unintended connotations that were not there in the text but somehow managed to end up on the screen (at least through the eyes of certain viewers)

It's not something I think there's an easy answer to but I do think it's an interesting topic.

Again, not to be all "I've read the books on you" but as a reader for example I can say with some reasonable certainty that the gender and class issues which have popped up are generally intentional things that the series intends to address and discuss. While the race thing is not really something that's at all present in the text. The Dothraki (horse people) culture is certainly something that will be explored, but I think any unfortunate racial parallels were unintended.

Taksi said...

As one of those readers who already knows the plot, I will simply say that at least in the books, there are certain themes that become very important, but they take a while to develop. Many of the major themes only become apparent as the plot unfolds in ways that defy genre expectations, so it's really impossible to get into them until the traditional fantasy environment is established. So at least in the early going, it does feel like a fairly typical fantasy.

One aspect of the show you don't talk about is its tone, which I think is often more important than theme. I would argue that a show like Deadwood is made great by its distinctively rough, vulgar, brutal, yet also poignant tone, more than by its themes on right and wrong and justice and community.

It's too early to tell with only one episode under our belt, but at this point I'm more concerned with the tone of Game of Thrones than with its thematic material. From the earliest chapters, the books have an elegiac undercurrent of nostalgia and regret as characters reflect on the past and on their personal history, and this sense of loss is often the lens through which we are introduced to the world. I haven't gotten that tone so far from the show, and I miss it, most conspicuously in Daenerys's scenes. Here's hoping that it can move more in that direction once it gets the early exposition out of the way and has a little more space to breathe.

Rowan said...

Taksi, that's an interesting take on it. I don't recall getting that undercurrent of nostalgia from the books, and that is something I generally look for. I think that's what makes Firefly so great, actually, and also why Rubicon is one my favorite history books. The Sopranos does a great job of subverting it too.

Anonymous said...

here I thought Curb your Enthusiasm was just an excuse to prank Larry David. A Lot.