Friday, May 24, 2019
On Compression and Magic
HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.
If you are one of the half dozen people in the world who a) has not yet seen the end of Game of Thrones and b) still has any intention of doing so, you may want to move on to a different post.
“Time is the only magic,” he said. … “Think: If you hurt yourself and I bandage it, and after weeks and weeks it gets well and there’s no scar, that’s not magic at all. But if you hurt yourself and I touch you and it heals in a moment, you’d call me magic before your skin closed. It’s not magic to cook a feast, roasting and baking and frying for hours and hours, but if you blink and it’s steaming in front of you, it’s a spell. If you work for what you want and save for it and plan it out just as precisely as you possibly can, it’s not even surprising if you get it on the other side of a month or a year. But if you snap your fingers and it happens as soon as you want it, every wizard will want to know you socially. If you live straight through a hundred years and watch yourself unfold at one second per second, one hour per hour, that’s just being alive. If you go faster, you’re a time traveler. If you jump over your unfolding and see how it all comes out, that’s fate. But it’s all healing and cooking and planning and living, just the same. The only difference is time.”
-Catherynne M. Valente
It’s been almost a week now since Game of Thrones came to an end.
While it is true that the series peaked a couple of seasons ago, I confess that I just don’t get the hate and the whinging that has greeted this season in general and the finale in particular. It’s a show, folks. It’s designed to entertain, and for the most part it has done so and done it well.
There were parts of this season that I really enjoyed, in fact – the second episode, a quiet sort of reflection on impending death, and one that ended with a truly lovely bit of music, is one of my all-time favorites. And even the episodes that felt a bit flat – for all of its drama and intensity, the Battle of Winterfell didn’t do a whole lot for me – were fun to watch. The scene in that episode where the lights of the Dothraki slowly extinguish was a clinic in spare visual storytelling. I also rather liked three of the four entirely different stories that were forcibly wedged into the finale.
Much of the whinging that has consumed the internet about this season has been focused on the idea that the characters were doing things that didn’t make sense for them to do. Most of this was aimed at Daenerys morphing into the villain, but she wasn’t the only character being criticized for this.
I’m not sure where these complaints come from, really. Daenerys turning into the villain has been foreshadowed pretty much from Season 1 – the shift in historical models from the Wars of the Roses to the French Revolution with her as Robespierre has been clear for some time, anyway – and Jon Snow assassinating her seemed well within his character. It’s pretty much the same obtusely honorable thing he’s always done – the man was never a strategic thinker. Perhaps the series didn’t need to end precisely the way it did – I was hoping for more from Arya; I think several other characters got lost in the shuffle as well; and if anyone ought to have sat on whatever replaced the Iron Throne it should have been Sansa since she’s the only ruler left who seemed to have put much thought into the logistics of actually governing – but it was never going to end well for most of the characters and given what needed to happen to bring this series to a conclusion I thought the writers did a reasonable job with the events.
The real problem with this season as far as I could tell, and also the previous one if we’re being honest with each other here, is not what happened in it but how quickly it happened.
They had six episodes to wrap up one of the most sprawling and complex narratives ever attempted on television, and the ruthless pruning and compression that this required meant that a lot of things just sort of happened without really being set up to happen. They did a lot of “traveling by map,” as the Muppets used to say. It would have worked better if they had let the story breathe and unfold.
From a story perspective, I would argue that this season really should have been three seasons. The final episode was a season itself. If they had done that, they could have kept all of the major story beats the same and not heard anywhere near the volume of complaints that are currently swamping the internet.
The first season should have run from the opening of episode one through the decision to march south on King’s Landing in episode four. You’ve got a nice arc there – a battle that no longer has to be the Big Central Moment but can serve as a pivot in the story, and then an aftermath that needs to be explained and explored. What does it mean to win such a battle? What does that do to the fragile and largely ad-hoc alliances that came together in that moment, now that the moment has passed? What does it do to your entire culture, which is in some sense predicated on opposition to a force that no longer exists? The whole thing is going to topple over somehow, but in which direction? And when? Will it stay upright long enough to get to the next conflict down in King’s Landing? How? The machinations it would have taken to keep things rolling would have been fascinating. And how are they all going to eat?
In a ten-episode season, the Battle of Winterfell would have been episode five.
The second season would run from the beginnings of the march south through the Battle of King’s Landing. How does that all work? How can it hold together? What’s it like in King’s Landing as the inevitable showdown draws closer? What’s going in the Iron Islands anyway – did Yara win? Is she going to go after her uncle or let things work themselves out? Whatever happened with Jaime on his road to King's Landing, anyway? The show was good about ending seasons not with the big battle but with the aftermath, but in this case I think it would have been good to end with the fall of King’s Landing. Get the city to crumble, watch Arya ride off, and leave people hanging until the next season.
The finale, as noted, was the third season all by itself.
The first part would open with the scenes of devastation in King’s Landing, as the characters walked through the ruined city and tried to come to terms with it – two episodes, perhaps. That scene with the dragon wings behind Daenerys has to be in there somewhere. The last beat of this part of the story would be Tyrion throwing away his symbol of office and being led to prison.
The second part would pick up there and spend several episodes on the new normal in King’s Landing – how do you govern a city you’ve just burned to ashes? How do you control a city with foreign troops who, frankly, aren’t much interested in or any good at peacekeeping? George RR Martin spent a lot of time in the books exploring the difference between conquering and ruling, something the show did sporadically throughout its run, and this small fragment of the final produced episode really could have been three episodes without losing momentum. This is the section where the foreshadowing of the best assassin in Westeros heading out of town on a pale rider could be exploited for real drama. The last beat of this part of the story would be the assassination, as it all comes crumbling down. It would not have been the only attempt, and perhaps we could have seen more of some characters who got lost in the finale, but so be it.
The third part would be the beginning of the final act. How do you choose a new ruler after all that? This, to be honest, was the one part of the finale that I really didn’t like. Not necessarily the result – if it wasn’t going to be Sansa then Bran was about as good a choice as any, I suppose, though not my first choice for either sentiment (who has a better story than Bran? what? you want a list?) or continuity within the show (isn’t this the same not-human-anymore who declined to be considered for the Lord of Winterfell?) – but for the compression of it. “Hey gang, let’s put on a kingsmoot!” is not something that really fits the broader narrative or the way this show has done things, though I can see Tyrion playing a large and wordy part in whatever did eventually happen to make that choice. Spread this out over three full episodes and the decisions and stakes start to seem natural rather than rushed and forced.
Once the selection is made and the wheeling and dealing comes to an end, there are consequences to be faced in the fourth and final part of the season – none of which found time to be included in the actual finale. A great many people will be disappointed with the selection of the new king and they won't just accept it. How does he mollify or overwhelm them? What did it actually take to convince the Unsullied and the Dothraki to go back to Essos? How about we look at all the other characters who seemed to drop off the main stage, now that we've got some time? What's going on with the newly unpersecuted Wildlings? And so on. When all was said and done, then and only then could you send the main characters out into the world like they did on the show, this time with more explanation and justification. So another two episodes, and suddenly you’ve got a ten-episode season that actually addresses the middle parts of the stories.
Because when you compress a story like the way it was broadcast, it turns into magic. You get the beginnings of the stories and the conclusions of the stories but not the middles – not the parts that show you the hard work that gets you from idea to payoff. You snap your fingers and there’s a feast, but no matter how hungry you were at the beginning there’s something terribly hollow in that achievement. Magic is a lovely thing when it is the subject of the story, but it is a terribly thin and unsatisfying thing when it is the structure of the story.
I understand why they did it the way they did, even if I don’t especially think it worked as well as it could have.
It’s an expensive show to produce. The actors have been doing this for most of a decade and were either aging out of their parts or just eager to move on to new things. So were the directors and writers.
And when you think about it, the way it turned out may well have been the point after all.
The thing that made this show – and the books they’re based on – such a cultural moment was that it worked so hard to undermine the standard tropes of the genre, something that became remarkably clear the moment Ned Stark’s head went bouncing down the steps. And really, to have it end with the realization that all that drama about prophecies and ancestry and so on was just so much subterfuge and that in the end none of it mattered much to the final resolution, that would be the greatest subversion of all.
Not sure that’s what they were going for, but it’s an interesting theory.
People didn’t need to be happy about the way it ended up happening on screen, I suppose, but the sheer nonsense of so many fans signing actual petitions “demanding” that the writers, cast and crew rewrite the final season and reshoot it to their satisfaction is staggering. Seriously – outside of a New England Patriots victory parade I haven’t seen that level of smug entitlement in years. Unless you’re willing to pony up the money and volunteer your labor, you have no right to make demands like that on other people’s time and resources.
It’s one thing to say, “this is how I think it could have been done better,” but it’s something else entirely to commandeer people’s lives like that.
I came to the show late, having read the books a few years ago and then started the show sometime last year. It was a thoughtful show in some ways and an entertaining one in many others, and once I managed to sit through the episodes (no small thing for me these days, though that has nothing in particular to do with any specific show, let alone this one) I enjoyed it. It had a lot to say.
Plus there hasn’t been a buddy pair like Arya and the Hound in popular culture in years.
But now it has ended, as all things must end.