Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Valar Morghulis

There's something about the Game of Thrones pop cultural phenomenon that awakens in me an inner demon, a loathsome creature with lensless horn-rimmed glasses and ill-matched vintage sweaters which pauses from its task of cataloging musical esoterica to rise up from my bile at scream to the heavens,
That demon be damned to the depths from which it crawled, and cleansed of its wicked influence I shall rise to the task of explicating George R.R. Martin's works for the world.
Valar morghulis; valar dohaeris.
For our beloved rock-dwellers, A Game of Thrones is a now hugely popular HBO television series based on the Song of Ice and Fire saga – the first of which, of course, is A Game of Thrones – by aforementioned author Martin. The books and show alike – for, as we will find, there is virtually no distinction but in medium – are a low (i.e. non-romantic) fantasy set in a crapsack medieval world strongly reminiscent of the British War of the Roses and devoid of most of the standard (read: Tolkienian) trappings of the genre. The world of Westeros is a place where the weak perish, the fittest thrive, and dreams go to die. So, you know, rather not unlike real life for for the vast majority of humanity throughout  our history. Principal to this nihilistic thrust is Martin's stern dedication to authorial objectivity, the end result being that he writes with no guiding set of ideals or thesis save perhaps that of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan: total, abject realism. Not even cynicism, in truth, for there are indeed heroes in Martin's world, men and women of virtue and honor who fight for their beliefs...and die painful deaths for their inflexible idealism. But more on that later.

Martin's greatest gift as an author, and now screenwriter, has always been his extended world- and character-building; though he has certainly contributed fine entries to the fantasy and scifi genres in the form of short stories and novellas, few have ever disputed the status of A Song of Ice and Fire as his magnum opus – assuming he ever gets around to finishing it. The TV adaptation is strong evidence for the stature of the characters: despite there being already dozens of principals by the end of the second season/book, all are so distinctly well-drawn – and now well-acted – that one encounters little difficulty keeping them all sorted out mentally even in the midst of what is possibly the most complicated political intrigue to appear on screen since...well, I'll be damned if I can think of anything else even close to as complex. Though no one character or set of characters can claim preferential authorial treatment as they struggle through this web, there are certainly standouts that will probably go down in the annals of the great literary creations of history.

For most fans no one better identifies this than Tyrion Lannister, now brought even more largely to life by the incomparable Peter Dinklage, Americenglish accent notwithstanding. A heartfelt finger to all stereotypical dwarven roles of fantasy and fiction yore throughout the ages, Tyrion stands tall as a masterful player of the Game and one of the most deeply noble – yet resourceful – souls in the series, a sharp mind and sharper tongue his primary defenses against a world full to 'flowing with hatred and prejudice. Tyrion is no saint, for he has seen saints like Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) fall faster and further than any sinner, but his own suffering has, despite hardening his will, softened his heart to the plight of those around him. Noble Ned Stark may be the hero the world deserves, but Tyrion Lannister is the one it needs.

Of course, Tyrion is but one man, a "half-man" at that, and the remainder of the dramatis personæ, whose casting could not have been more immaculate in a nerd's wildest dreams, are as colorful as their collective morality is grey. Any given episode of GoT packs more intrigue and sexual drama into its one-hour slot than half a season's worth of Rome, and Cersei Lannister could give Atia of the Julii a run for her incestuously-acquisitioned money any day of the week. Sean Bean is the embodiment of stoicism as Lord Eddard "Ned" Stark, a hard yet just and loving vision of a Boromir that might have been had he possessed Ned's indomitable fortitude to resist the lure of the Ring. Catelyn Tully (Michelle Fairley) is every bit his match, a driven woman who upon losing her children sets her eyes against all tears and marches south to war for her family, aspersions cast upon her gender and motherhood be damned in the face of her dedication. Cersei (Lena Heady), similarly, refuses to be constrained by the social limitations on her womanhood, seizing power for her and her beloved children with a ruthlessness to rival Machiavelli's prince. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and his half-brother Robb Stark (Richard Madden) are two sides of their same father's coin, one struggling to find his identity in Ned's legacy of honor against an eldritch foe more primal than any petty human mores, the other striving to be be worthy of the crown his father died to defend without fully understanding its implications for himself and for the kingdom as a whole. Joffrey Lannister (Jack Gleeson) is as vile a villain as any spoiled psychopath ever to be thrust by privilege into power, and his twice-grandfather Tywin (Charles Dance) dominates his every scene with the calm, dangerous dignity of a lion on the hunt, assured in his power over his pride and prey alike...

...and there must I stop, for even a cursory survey of the remaining players of the Game, kings and pawns and all between, would take far more time than I have available for present discourse. Suffice it to say that if there has ever been a richer pantheon in a TV drama, I remain wholly unaware of its existence. Of the plot, I can say even less without inevitably spoiling myriad surprises of which I would not presume to deprive any poor soul still stranger to the series. Sibilance.

Not much, therefore, remains to be said on the subject of characters: they are legion, and they are humanity. Structurally, despite its perpetual balancing act of literally hundreds of plots and subplots, GoT achieves virtual perfection. Though it has received notable criticism for its reliance on long exposition to convey important plot and character elements (frequently labeled "sexposition" for its tendency to occur during intercourse), the device is both necessary and effective as a means to tell a story so complex and of so many agents that viewers could not possibly be expected to keep track of them otherwise. Its frequent portrayal of women as objects of sexual gratification, however, is a trickier issue despite the accurate sexism and misogyny of the source period. Certainly there are feminist elements to be found in many of its characters and situations, but there's also an undeniable sense of HBO playing up the titillation angle wherever and whenever they think they can get away with it, despite some occasional and blatantly concessional male nudity for "balance." In spite of the show's fantastic quality in all other departments, GoT is doing less than nothing to alter its studio's traditional reputation as a "boob tube" content provider.

Any other possible complaints tend to be minor and episodic in nature. Not even a series with as high a murder-per-minute ratio as GoT can escape the odd transitional episode drag, not to mention a few tricky plot holes they've managed to dig for themselves in departure from Martin's more carefully crafted original narrative. Thus far they've done an admirable job justifying and filling those accordingly, but it could certainly be a problem down the road as altered butterfly currents beat up hurricanes in the time stream (though nowhere near so badly as the butchery of that metaphor).

And on that note, I misled when I earlier lauded Martin's objectivity, for in actuality he has none: his craft is defined, rather, by a mastery of authorial subjectivity, in that he inhabits his various characters so fully that his voice is drowned out by their own. Great writers of prose have speculated on the phenomenon of losing control of their work to their characters, and Martin holds the artistic distinction of never having tried to secure control in the first place. He has built the stage to dramatic perfection and set the players upon it, but like the best directors he has allowed them to move freely through the tale in exploration of their impulses, living and choosing their fates even as they entwine one another inexorably in those choices. All his world's a stage, a tale, a game, and all the players are but pieces with'n it.

What else can I say but hic sunt dracones? Go watch the show. As the most visceral political drama since Battlestar Galactica and the the finest fantasy adaptation yet to grace the small screen, Game of Thrones is literary and television history in the making.

Grade: A+

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