How do you review something good that bums you out? I don’t feel conflicted when it’s an unrelenting painfest like Requiem For a Dream– things like that I tend to dock for their monotony of tone. I’m talking about art that truly impresses you, fully engages your attention, and then leaves you feeling sad about the world. I last felt this when watching the brilliant, genre-bending District 9, and I felt it again recently when devouring HBO’s Game of Thrones, based off George R. R. Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire.
Game of Thrones looks a lot like the Lord of the Rings series, but with sex and violence dialed up to 11, racial overtones dialed down to 5, and magic and spells at a 1.5 at the most. In GoT‘s medieval-y realm of Westeros, dynasties jostle and ally and fight and bribe and backstab in their quest for power. There’s the house of the fat, drunken King, Baratheon. There’s the relatively honorable lords of the North, the Starks. Less trustworthy (as indicated by their extreme blonde-ness) are the Lannister and Targaryon families: the former, duplicitous millionaires; the latter, exiled Dragon-lords. There’s about a hundred other minor families as well, but you’d need to read the books to keep them straight.
This sounds (and is) complicated but, as I mentioned, the drama is terribly compelling. It’s not a predictable story of good versus evil but a tangle of moral compromises, trade-offs, and gray areas. Even the most despicable families have to choose between kingdom and family, or duty and long-term survival. That’s not to say there are no “good guys;” Sam Bean* shines as the serious Lord Eddard Stark, one of the few honest men living in a palace full of liars. But many of the morally dubious characters arouse sympathies as well, and even the Starks make mistakes as they unbendingly cling to their ways.
This moral ambiguity, combined with the sheer numbers of players, make for one doozy of a complex plot, where alliances change in an instant. But it’s not all political intrigue; there are some wonderful character moments, particularly with Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), a sardonic dwarf who has the trademark Lannister family’s cunning, but with more sympathy for the powerless. Or Daenerys Targaryon** (Emilia Clarke), a banished princess sold to the leader of a nomadic tribe, whose thousand-yard petrified stare becomes a queen’s cool gaze as the series progresses. Across the board, these characters and others are brilliantly written and acted, all across a beautifully-filmed backdrop.
So why did the end of the finale, and other episodes as well, leave me feeling glum? Part of it might be that I’m a big weenie and GoT is frequently pretty graphic. I’d thought I was pretty tough, movie-wise, but it turns out I still can’t handle watching someone’s tongue cut out without a lot of squirming on my part. There’s a lot of guts and a lot of death, including among some characters I had assumed were safe. I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone; suffice it just to say that Lord of the Rings’ ending that has (Lord of the Rings-only SPOILERS) Aragorn and Gimli and Legolas and Gandalf and even ALL FOUR HOBBITS survive…well, that just seems quaint. If George R. R. Martin had written Lord of the Rings, the hobbits would have been slaughtered in the first two chapters, and the rest of the books would have featured Gollum and Grima Wormtongue sending assassins after each other.
It’s not just the cruelty and violence in GoT that bummed me out; it was those things combined with the realism. Realism might sound like a funny word to describe a fantasy series, but the characters act in depressingly familiar ways. They feel entitled to things they were promised as children, they bully when they feel they can get away with it, they nurse grudges and cover up inadequacies with bravado. The enemy in GoT isn’t the monolithic threat of monsters and ghouls,*** it’s the person next door, which only fuels the fear that perhaps the real-life world is also made mostly of crap people, with the crappiest ultimately coming out on top of the crap pile.
So should I recommend this brilliantly-crafted show less just because I find its Hobbes-ian view of the world depressing? This far into the review, I still haven’t decided. It helps my decision-making that there are other small flaws in the show’s make-up; somewhere along the line, the decision was made that every exposition/info dump scene must also be a sex scene, so any nudity is about as gratuitous as it gets. The action drags a bit whenever the camera focuses on petulant Jon Snow and his life on the Northern Wall. And though this is hardly the show’s fault, the fact that the season only covers the first part in a bigger story (Martin’s series will eventually span seven books) means that there’s much more build-up than resolution.
Still, these flaws are minor. I recognize that Game of Thrones is A-caliber TV material, possibly A-minus, and I think people who like their fantasy dark would embrace it as such. If I couldn’t enjoy the show quite that much…if I was distracted from the rich mythology by heads on pikes and feelings of nihilism…should my feelings bring down the grade?
I’ma say yes. This is my blog, after all.
* Hey, it’s Boromir! Interesting that the one morally ambiguous character in Lord of the Rings is that most solid bloke in this fantasty series.
** Thank God for Wikipedia, or I would have NO IDEA how to spell these names.
*** Mostly. There are, as a horrific prologue shows us, gruesome zombie people in the North ready to eat any survivors left after the humans finish their wars and assassinations. Winter is coming.