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Critic's Notes (Cable)
Thrones of Blood
Binge-watching the most addictive show on television.
By Clive James, NewYorker.com
- Apr. 18, 2016 Issue
Binge-watching is a night out, even when you spend the whole day in. It’s a way of being. We begin to esteem this way of being at its true worth when we realize that the creators of the brain food that we’re wolfing down are at least as involved in it, at the level of imagination, as we are. From Homer until now, and onward to wherever the creaking fleet of “Battlestar Galactica” may go in the future, there never was, and never will be, a successful entertainment fuelled by pure cynicism. And, when we click on Play All and settle back to watch every season of “The Wire” all over again, we should try to find a moment, in the midst of such complete absorption, to reflect that the imagined world being revealed to us for our delight really is an astounding achievement, even though we will always feel that we need an excuse for doing nothing else except watch it.
For the past six years, I have had the perfect excuse—ever since a polite but insidious form of leukemia was diagnosed, in early 2010. It has been more often dormant than not. Early on, a program of chemo sent it into remission for five years. Not long ago it came back, to be faced by a medical opponent that might not have existed had it been smart enough to come back earlier. Now it is being held in check by a powerful new chemo drug called ibrutinib. The drug’s muscular name (“I, Brutinib. You, Olanzapine”) sounds like the hero of one of those post-“Conan the Barbarian” movies starring some stack of sculpted tofu who will never be Arnold Schwarzenegger. But you won’t find me disrespecting the package when the contents have such an impact. Saved from the unnerving blood-count plunge that set in when my lurking ailment came out of remission, I was back to having time to burn. Though I haven’t really got a chance, I haven’t got an end date, either.
In the five years before the latest crisis, I used up a lot of my blessed supply of extra time by reading. But I was also viewing, and I mean viewing everything. The advent of the critically credentialled TV epic, and of the boxed set, amplified my TV habit, already a long-term addiction, into a form of brain-scrambling suicide. My younger daughter, Lucinda, was my partner in this enterprise. We had been in it together—the entire family had—since “The Sopranos” and “The West Wing” introduced us all to the dizzy new pleasure of watching more than one episode of the same show in a single evening. But surely three episodes was the maximum possible. Serious people had to retire for the night. It was Lucinda and I who pushed it all the way to four and even five; and now, every Saturday in the tiny parlor of my house of books, we binge-watch at that heady rate. We may well be the only people in the world who have ever watched five episodes of “The Following” in succession without succumbing to catatonia. Would Kevin Bacon ever meet a character who was not a serial killer? That question kept us awake rather than putting us to sleep.
A TV habit on this scale starts to permeate every corner of your mind. The new mythology gets into the old mythology, as if classic literature had faded into the mind’s background and images encountered on the screen had become one’s first frame of cultural reference. In view of this possibility, it becomes a positive likelihood that for the next generation they will be the only frame of reference. It’s a new, pervasive, and irresistible vocabulary of the imagination. Familiar with it, one gets caught up in conversations in which properties of screen stories have the common currency once held by stories from the page. In Renaissance times, the bright young people knew what they were talking about when they made glancing references to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Now the bright young people, although they are perhaps already turning into bright early-middle-aged people, know what they are talking about when they say that two of their friends are like Josh Lyman and Donna Moss, or that another friend is a Zoe Barnes in the making, and could end up getting pushed under a train.
* * * *
All the same, like anybody both adult and sane, I had no intention of watching “Game of Thrones,” even though the whole world was already talking about it. For one thing, it had swords; and I had already seen enough swords being wielded by Conan and Red Sonja. Though I share the movie heritage of my generation in retaining a soft spot for the intricate fencing matches in the Errol Flynn “Robin Hood” and the Stewart Granger “Scaramouche,” that fondness rather depends on those lightweight swords making a little hole instead of chopping off a limb. Usually, an onscreen sword fight is just a stretch of choreography, dull even when frenzied; or else it gets you into abattoir territory, like that scene in the first season of “Rome,” when Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson, pioneering the buzz cut) converts seven gladiators into ten times as many body parts. So there is a sound reason for not starting to watch any epic with swords in it. And to read such an epic is not much better. Not even Dorothy Dunnett, who can write, can write an interesting sword; and George R. R. Martin, the author of the books on which “Game of Thrones” is based, writes the kind of prose that might describe a sword hand-forged from a meteorite and make it less thrilling than a can opener. I knew this because I picked up one of his books and fell down shortly afterward, and I wasn’t even ill that day.
For another thing, “Game of Thrones” had dragons, and I place a total embargo on dragons. I would almost rather have zombies. Bolstered by these and other relevant prejudices, I managed to ward off “Game of Thrones” for months. Then a box of the first season somehow got into the house. It lay there unopened on the parlor table while I thought of further objections. For yet another thing, “Game of Thrones” had Sean Bean as a hero, when everybody knows that Sean Bean is meant to be a heavy, one who flexes his teeth and grits his jaw before being eliminated by Christian Bale in “Equilibrium” or Harrison Ford in “Patriot Games.”
“Leave that box alone!” I told myself. “You’re sick, and time is short!” Lucinda showed no inclination to help me fight my way through the shrink-wrap. We were still binge-watching “The Following.” But, one afternoon when I was alone, I found myself taking a peep. Almost the first thing I saw was Sean Bean gritting his entire face, and then there was a blond princess caressing a trio of dragon eggs. Yet I kept on watching, even as I vowed to stop when the eggs hatched. What was the immediate appeal?
Undoubtedly, it was the appeal of raw realism. Superficially bristling with every property of fantasy fiction up to and including cliff-crowning castles with pointed turrets, the show plunges you into a state where there is no state except the lawless interplay of violent power. The binding political symbol is brilliant: the Iron Throne, a chair of metal spikes that looks like hell to sit on. (It was forged from molten swords by a dragon’s breath, but skip all that.) It is instantly established that nobody in King’s Landing or anywhere else in the Seven Kingdoms can relax for a minute—especially not the person on the Iron Throne.
As for the top woman of the realm, the queen Cersei Lannister, she is a beautiful expression of arbitrary terror, combining shapely grace with limitless evil in just the right measure to scare a man to death while rendering him helpless with desire. She is Kundry and Lilith, Lulu and Carmen. She is Proust’s mother, who tormented him so much by neglecting to climb the stairs to kiss him good night that he spent his entire life writing a long novel in revenge. Superbly equipped by the cold edges of her classically sculpted looks to incarnate the concept of the femme fatale, Lena Headey beams Cersei’s radiant malevolence at such a depth into the viewer’s mind that she reawakens a formative disturbance: did my mother look after me because she loved me, or was she doing all that only because she had to?
Plotwise, Cersei can thus raise a long-running question: Must she behave dreadfully in order to protect her dreadful son Joffrey, the heir to the throne, or is she just dreadful anyway? Would we, in the same position, be sufficiently dreadful to protect our offspring from a richly deserved oblivion? Tussling with such conundrums, we are obviously a long way below the level of the law; and indeed the whole thrust of the show is to give us a world in which the law has not yet formed, a Jurassic Park that has not yet given birth to its keepers. Once this principle is grasped, the dragons almost fit, although, personally, I could have done without them. Lucinda, when I finally forced her to start watching, correctly told me to stop bitching about the dragons: they were part of the deal, the price of voluntarily lowering oneself into the pit of the brain.
* * * *
The dragons hatch and grow up in the rocky, sandy realm of Essos, in my view the second-dullest region of the show’s world-girdling range of locations. Sand is almost as boring as ice, anyway, and when the sand is being trampled by an army of fearless gelding warriors it induces sleep. Not that the Dothraki chieftain, Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), is a gelding: au contraire, he looks like a pumped-up clone of the young Burt Reynolds, with the shoulders of an armored personnel carrier. He is lover and spouse to Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), she who would rule as many as possible of the Seven Kingdoms. (The Seven Kingdoms are divided into nine regions, with a logic that will be familiar to all fans of fantasy, and even to a few normal people.) With her at his side, Drogo is unbeatable, and unbeatability is always a formula for tedium. That same formula is at the heart of the currently most pervasive of all bad cinematic genres, the action movie without real action: where contending forces are invincible, there can be no plausible conflict, only choreography.
At the side of the inconceivably butch Drogo—taming him by convincing him that his abrupt sex drive will yield even more satisfactory results if he extends the duration of the act of love to the full ten seconds—Daenerys can’t lose. After all, she has dragons for an air force. She also has access to the only reliable supply of artificial fabrics in the realm, and on her form a sheer negligee drapes wrinkle-free, like Ban-Lon on a Barbie doll: the Hollywood concept of feminine allure always did depend on a certain insouciance about wearing nightwear by day. For all her putative capacity to drive strong men mad with longing, however, she is eventually obliged to look on helplessly as Drogo wastes away and dies, perhaps from boredom. If I sound dismissive, it’s just because I’m still looking for all the reasons it would have been right not to watch the show, before I get to the more difficult task of specifying the reasons that not watching would have been a loss.
Another reason not to watch the series would have been what happens in the North. There is icy cold instead of sandy heat, but still the level of tedium is very high, for two main reasons: the character of Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and the excessive number of C.G.I. zombies. The latter component you can get in a bad movie. Continually assembling their forces to smash through the Wall and wreak who knows what havoc in the balmier regions of Westeros, the inexorably oncoming undead violate my ad-hoc rule of never caring about any character that I can partly see through: I was brought up to be scared of people in one piece, not walking around in bits. But the real problem is that Jon Snow is no more expressive than the zombies. In this, I think, the casting has given us an ideal representative; for we, too, would be facially immobile at the prospect of forever defending a prop wall against an infinitude of implacable digital effects with no letup in the lack of interest.
At the risk of a spoiler, let it be said that the showrunners took a chance when they left it ambiguous whether Jon Snow had been written out at the end of Season 5. Nobody might have cared. His only accomplishment for several years had been to look glumly determined, even when the feisty wildling Ygritte (Rose Leslie) called him Jon Snore and shot him full of arrows. His in-depth moroseness is amusingly celebrated in a Seth Meyers spoof video that has him sitting at a dinner party in New York and throwing a damper on the conversation, but really, there is no criticism to be made of the character in either concept or performance, because the North of the show is simply like that: it leaves nothing to be said.
All the action that matters takes place in the intermediate regions, especially in King’s Landing, where the show truly begins and to which it must always return, if it has any sense. Luckily, it usually does, and we know that we’ll get back to it even when we’re stuck in the countryside somewhere, with the towering Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) endlessly escorting the tiny Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) from danger to safety, or from safety to danger, or whatever. King’s Landing is Hamlet’s Elsinore, Julio-Claudian Rome, “Deadwood,” “The West Wing,” and Tony Soprano’s New Jersey all rolled into one. The other centers of events exist only to give us a rest from it, and the rest had better not be too long. This is where Sean Bean as Eddard (Ned) Stark, Warden of the North, newly appointed to be the King’s Hand, graduates from his established condition of dispensability to the same indispensability that he enjoyed in “Sharpe,” and then, while the old King slowly dies, goes on to a postgraduate degree as the wise man, the unwobbling pivot of the plot. And then what? He gets his head cut off at the mere whim of Cersei’s frightful son, the boy king Joffrey.
In his performance as Joffrey, Jack Gleeson—angelic to look at but talented enough to be anything—helps the writers invest the character with a terrifying range of virulent psychopathy. (They’ve killed him too quickly, I thought when the little swine finally got his, and I was all too aware that the script had reached me successfully in its clear intention to tap the viewer’s animal emotions, some of which can have a disturbing connection with the way it takes so long for an orca to kill a seal.) But, for the viewer who can stand back a bit from the kid’s perverted smile, it’s standard stuff. John Hurt as Caligula in “I, Claudius” ate the baby from his sister’s womb, whereas all Joffrey does is shoot a prostitute with his crossbow. The real shock is not in what Joffrey’s evil streak can accomplish but in what Ned Stark’s virtue fails to prevent. He is a good, thoughtful man with a sense of justice, and it avails him nothing. It avails us nothing, either, who have come to depend on him.
* * * *
For popular art, for any level of art, this is a rare step toward the natural condition of the world. The rarity might be multiplied by the unusual profligacy of sacrificing a star, but even that expensive boldness has been not unfamiliar since Hitchcock pioneered it in “Psycho”; as he told Truffaut, the shock value of Janet Leigh’s early departure in the shower scene depended on the audience’s expectation that a headline name would stay alive. But Sean Bean, though he might be admired, has never counted among the much loved, and the shock value of his departure from “Game of Thrones” depended on the size of the investment that the creators had put into building up his part of the story until it looked like the armature of the whole deal. For them, it was a key play in a deliberate campaign to get their show beyond the reach of movie cliché, and even beyond the reach of show business itself. Show business usually depends on fulfilling our wishes. In King’s Landing, however, our wishes might run out of luck.
Cersei, for example, won’t be climbing the stairs to kiss you good night, unless you happen to be her brother. She is more likely to consign you to sudden death. Since her every sardonic smile is a reign of terror, the script scarcely needs to spell out the secret of her political strength, but it’s at its best when it does. At the start of Season 2, the suave and sinister palace tactician Lord Baelish (Aidan Gillen), walking in a courtyard with Cersei and her guards, for once pushes his flattering manner into the range of overfamiliarity. Quietly boasting about his treasury of secrets, he says, “Knowledge is power.” Cersei orders her guards to seize him and cut his throat. They are all set to do so when she orders them to release him. Then she tells him, “Power is power.” There are only a few scraps of dialogue in the forty seconds of the sequence, but it speaks volumes. This couldn’t be done on the page with the same force, because you need the closeups, especially of the fractured light in Baelish’s eyes when he realizes that his own cleverness might have condemned him to death. The moment is a lesson in writing for the screen, and in “Game of Thrones” there are hundreds of moments like it. (To be fair to George R. R. Martin and his Dan Brownish prose, the showrunners, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, have kept him close throughout the enterprise.) The show’s long-range carbon arc burns between the extreme simplicity of primitive emotions and the extreme technical sophistication with which they are expressed.
* * * *
An atmosphere in which a character as highly placed and clever as Baelish can talk himself to the brink of extinction with a single phrase really didn’t need explicit scenes of sex and torture as well, but the showrunners piled them on. Personally, I could have done without the torture altogether. A scream from the other side of a closed door is usually enough to convince me. There is also the consideration that, in a now famous torture scene, in the sixth episode of the third season, the actor doing the cutting up (Iwan Rheon, in the role of Ramsay Snow) and the actor being cut up (Alfie Allen, in the role of Theon Greyjoy) could, for my money, just as easily have swapped places. Rheon has the scarier pair of eyes—he can pop them at will—but Allen also looks like someone you would want to keep your eye on if he got behind you. In neither case can the actor be blamed for the face God gave him, but the whole dreary concentration on the sadistic delights of the dungeon was certainly the fault of the showrunners, whom we might have punished by ceasing to watch their show, if only we could have done so.
I can swear on a stack of Faith of the Seven sacred texts that it wasn’t the sex scenes that kept me tuned in. In my decrepit condition, I didn’t find their number and nature anything to be horrified about, but they were nothing to be excited about, either. The “Game of Thrones” revue-bar circuit has perhaps too many bare breasts and certainly too many Brazilian wax jobs, but there are no penises in sight: an indication that primitive times, like ancient times, adhere to Hollywood rules even when the starting gun fires for an all-out orgy.
There is also the consideration that, with so much compulsory removal of female clothes, an additional dignity is conferred on those females highborn enough to keep their clothes on, although this privilege, as always in show business, is given mainly to those who have graduated from the feature list to star billing. Even when Cersei is tumbling in the upper tower with her brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), in the very first episode, we don’t see her naked. The scene is therefore chiefly memorable not for her body laid bare but for the body of young Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) plummeting after Jaime pushes him backward out of a window. When Cersei does appear naked, during a public shaming at the end of Season 5, she is either a symbol of her own fall from power or else she is Lena Headey’s body double. The ongoing scholarly dispute seems to be plumping for the latter.
But if “Game of Thrones” actually depended on its torture festivals and its showrooms of naked pulchritude, it would have been “Caligula.” The show’s real spine is in the daring of its analytical psychology, much of it revealed through talk, which goes on even when the clothes have come off. (The word “sexposition” has entered the language—a clumsy coinage that I would never mention, except to illustrate the show’s cultural influence.) Though economy is always the watchword, there are miles of dialogue, and nearly all of it is good. It’s the reason there was never a show harder to switch off once it had hooked you. You never knew, for example, what Tywin Lannister, the malevolent patriarch of the clan, would say next.
For the deliciously long time that Lannister survived, Charles Dance, the actor who played him, never once chortled before he spoke, but he might well have, for he was surely aware that his lines were giving him the summation of his career in a single sweep. The overlord Tywin Lannister is not only the best role of its kind that Dance has ever had; it is the best role of its kind that anyone has ever had. (Rex Harrison got something just about as good in “Cleopatra,” but it didn’t last a tenth as long.) The role gave Dance the delectable opportunity to play to his natural bent as an upmarket authority figure for four solid seasons, thereby stamping his image into the global public consciousness to a depth that his previous career had barely suggested. Typecast as a smooth toff by his stature, looks, and finely cultivated voice, he had been perfectly at home in “The Jewel in the Crown,” “White Mischief,” and “Gosford Park,” but you were always wanting more of him. In “Game of Thrones” you get enough of him, and it still isn’t enough.
His role as Tywin has a polarity that he fits both ways. Tywin is a figure of authority, and that’s just the ticket for an actor who elsewhere features in the video game “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” as the voice of Emhyr var Emreis, Emperor of Nilfgaard. But Tywin is also a philosopher of the subject of power, with his every precept learned first from experience and then refined by his understanding. And that’s where Dance’s greatest strength comes in: his credibility as a thinker, a man of reflection. There was never a more persuasively thoughtful transmitter of bitterly cured wisdom; in speech after speech, he gets hours to do what Sean Connery gets only a few minutes to do in all those guru roles from “The Untouchables” through “The Hunt for Red October” and “Entrapment.” Tywin is wise from his mistakes, ruthless in his realism, an armed prophet after Machiavelli’s own heart. He’s a character who reaches deep into the psyche: we may not forgive him his cruelties, but we find it hard to question his right to rule. Look at the evidence. Nothing can stop him.
* * * *
Nothing, that is, except the dwarf who shoots him with a crossbow while he is sitting in the privy. The dwarf in question is his son Tyrion, whom he has despised since the day the malformed boy was born, an instant reaction that finally turns out to have been Tywin’s only long-term mistake. Peter Dinklage as Tyrion, from his first episodes in the show, had such an impact that he suddenly made all the other male actors in the world look too tall. It was a deserved success: his face is a remarkable instrument of expression over which he has complete professional control, and his voice is a thing of rare beauty, as rich as Chaliapin singing Boris Godunov. None of his scenes really need to be cited in proof; everybody knows all of them too well. But, if I measure his moments by my feelings, I have to recall his reactions when he is on trial for his life, in Season 4, Episode 6. His situation is as desperate as when he had to sleep in a cell whose fourth wall opened onto a killing void, but here the threat to his life is all in the words of others, and his resigned desperation, if there can be such a thing, is conveyed not by the little he is allowed to say—his summing-up speech is the only stretch of eloquence Dinklage has been assigned in the whole trial—but by the way he looks when he listens.
Debarred by fate from military prowess, Tyrion has never been able to influence events except with his brain, and his trial is the show’s clearest proof that, in an unreasonable society, to have reasoning power guarantees nothing except the additional mental suffering that accrues when circumstances remind you that you are powerless. Your only privilege, even as the son of a noble house, is to understand the fix you are in, and to express yourself neatly when neatness can avail you nothing. Tyrion has enough influence to secure for himself, among his outsized supply of paid mistresses, a woman he genuinely loves: the camp follower Shae, touchingly played by Sibel Kekilli. But he can’t save her from harm, so even his best quality, his natural tenderness, becomes his enemy. Tyrion is the embodiment, in a small body, of the show’s prepolitical psychological range. A perpetual victim of injustice, he yet has a sense of justice: circumstances can’t destroy his inner certainty that there are such things as fairness, love, and truth. Those circumstances might lead him to despair, but he takes their measure by his instincts. To raise, for an uninstructed audience, the question of what comes first, a civilized society or an instinctive wish for civilization, can’t be a bad effect for an entertainment to have; although we might have to be part of an instructed audience ourselves in order to find that effect good, and we had better be protected by the police and an army from anyone who finds it trivial.
Philosophical conundrums aside, there is the matter of Tyrion’s indispensability; and here, surely, we finally come down to a certainty that there is one character the show can’t do without. We felt shock when Ned Stark was decapitated, and when Tywin Lannister was killed. But we could survive those shocks, and might even have been able to bear it if Ned’s darling daughter Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), after seasons of being protected like a caged nightingale from the casual rapaciousness of the dreaded Joffrey, had been not only raped but killed, just as, in real life, some daughter, equally precious, is raped and killed every day of the week. Besides, to put it as compassionately as I can, the dramatis personae contain plenty of characters we wouldn’t have minded seeing the back of.
Of those we come to love, there are many, but we have been ready to see them go. Young Arya, for example, braves so many fatal hazards with so tiny a sword that it would not have been surprising to see her pinned by her own toothpick like a cocktail sausage. Clearly, the main thing keeping her alive was the showrunners’ determination to fascinate us with the process of her maturation, but from our own lives we know that the wish to see someone grow and thrive can be thwarted by chance. Everyone in the show is dispensable, as in the real world. But without Tyrion Lannister you would have to start the show again, because he is the epitome of the story’s moral scope. His big head is the symbol of his comprehension, and his little body the symbol of his incapacity to act upon it. Tyrion Lannister is us, bright enough to see the world’s evil but not strong enough to change it.