Tuesday, 16 June 2015

In ‘Game of Thrones’ Finale, a Breakdown in Storytelling

You wouldn’t have thought that a show based on a beloved series of books, with hundreds of pages of existing story to work from — a “mythology” that is an actual mythology — would become the “Lost” of its television generation. But that’s where “Game of Thrones” finds itself after Sunday night’s Season 5 finale: a wildly popular show that seems to have lost its way, and to be losing faith with a growing number of its viewers.
This HBO series, based on the “Song of Ice and Fire” fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin, has been assailed most loudly this season by two groups: those who accuse it of a predilection for depicting violence against women, and those who think that it’s departing too drastically from the letter and spirit of Mr. Martin’s original story.
But Sunday’s episode reflected the real problem, which is a breakdown in storytelling. After two or three seasons of coherent and satisfying action, the show is spinning in place, stalling for time as it crawls toward an ending that will be more disappointing the longer it’s delayed. Sound familiar? As with “Lost,” there may be a blueprint, but it’s not looking very sound.
The circumstances of the two shows are different, of course, with Mr. Martin’s unfinished series of novels serving as both source and millstone for the “Game of Thrones” writers. But the pattern has been similar, and the escalating series of shocks in the season finale was a prime example of substituting sensation for imagination, busyness for drama. Not content to kill off a prominent character, the episode moved on to whipping girls, putting a major female character through an excruciatingly long, nude walk of shame and, in its closing seconds, assassinating a fan favorite who was one of the few wholly sympathetic figures in the show.
Though the episode was written and shot months ago, several of its scenes almost seemed to be taunting those who have criticized the show’s treatment of its fictional women this season. The full-frontal parade of the queen-mother Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) — a Nazi-collaborator-style perp walk complete with filth throwing, spitting and obscene name-calling — did feel excessive. But at least there was some dramatic point to it. Her humiliation will surely be a motivating factor in future events, and while on the surface she was being chastened for political and religious reasons, viewers understood that she was really being punished for her long history of heartlessness, stretching back to her complicity in the execution of Ned Stark in Season 1.
There has also been a dramatic logic, of sorts, to the sexual brutalization of the lost princess Sansa Stark by her new husband, Ramsay Bolton, which began midway through the season and has been the focus of the most heated criticism. What else was going to happen, given the situation: A woman defined by suffering is forced to marry a man defined by monstrousness and inadequacy. An objection may be justified, but the more logical protest would be against the show’s thin, utilitarian characterizations and the increasingly tone-deaf nature of its formerly tolerable mix of full-metal medieval-fantasy violence and soap-opera sentimentality.
More irritating than any problematic plot point, though, is the obviousness of the balancing act the show tries to pull off — there may not be a moral compass, but there’s a definite moral calculus. It’s O.K. that the pervy thug whips the girls, the show seems to be saying, because he immediately has his eyes stabbed out. Yes, that scene required an exorbitant amount of nudity by Ms. Headey (and her body double), but at least we had a guy jump out of the crowd and wave his penis for a few seconds.
And the biggest failings of the finale had to do with male characters, whose fates in “Game of Thrones” tend toward abrupt departure and are, in dramatic terms, generally less interesting and affecting than those of the women. The death of Stannis Baratheon, surprised by Ramsay on the field of battle and then executed by Brienne of Tarth as part of an unrelated vendetta, at least had a little poignancy. But the wholly unexpected killing of one of the show’s principal characters, the idealistic Jon Snow (Kit Harington), by his own men served no discernible purpose other than to pump up emotions, furnish a suitably grim ending for the season and create space for other characters (Samwell Tarly? A reanimated, presumably changed version of Jon Snow?) to be developed to stretch out the fictional time frame.
And “Game of Thrones” has been defined by that stretching — a lot happened in Season 5, but when you look at the overall framework, nearly all the characters are where they were when the season began. The usurping Boltons are still in Winterfell; Sansa is still on the run; Arya is still hiding in Braavos; the dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen and the sly dwarf, Tyrion, are still marooned in Essos; the Lannisters still occupy the castle in King’s Landing. This can be blamed on the show’s semidependent relationship with Mr. Martin’s novels, but viewers (like me) who haven’t read the books don’t care about that. The question is how much longer we’ll care at all.