30 April 2012

On Game of Thrones

This has been on long enough and I've been watching it fairly religiously enough that it deserves some comment. It's pretty much just the sex and violence that require commentary. The levels of intrigue and politicking involved I think go without saying are interesting to me, in the same way that the "game" in the Wire was, watching agents move in pursuit and position with an idea of power over each other. Some spoilers are in order for people who haven't read or followed the series closely.

First off, sex.

I find occasionally the use of "sexposition" a little jarring. I don't mind watching humans have sex with each other, and there is a lot of "useful" sex involved and depicted (going back to Dany in season 1 with the Khal and the development of their relationship, or Loris and Renly, etc). That's not what I'm talking about. Rather, these are points where characters are having sex or parading around naked while talking to some other character, sometimes their sexual partner, sometimes not, about some particular thing or another. I do not mind the use of boring but essential narrative elements being explained to us. And it's a trick that goes back to Shakespeare or Aristophanes in theater uses. So it's not new. I still find it strange at times. And it's been fairly ongoing (right down to the first episode where Tyrion is found in a whorehouse to various conversations involving Little Finger/Baelish at one of his establishments).

Occasionally this figures into character developments in a useful way. For example Theon's sexual "conquest" on a ship while on his way home is deliberately causal and dismissive in a way that suggests his overriding character. And we see almost immediately how this matters because of how his sister, who has taken up his birthright as the important family member to command power and influence as an heir, passively observes and reacts to him and in effect uses his weaknesses against him to command even more power or influence within their family dynamic. I think it also plays into how he handles his forces that he is given later on. He looks immediately to a sexy flash to attain his power rather than something he can actually pay the "iron price" for in the same way that his manner around women glazes over that he's generally in the company of prostitutes is buying their affections and attentions rather than earning them.

I don't think the show is misogynistic or sexist as a result. Women have, in environments of inequality, long used sex as a means to power. This is sort of where Cersei, Dany, and the Tyrells come in. They've also been historically at the short end of those unequal arrangements in a way that portraying such is sometimes necessary, which is generally where Cersei (she's sitting on both sides of this coin, and to some extent so is/was Dany. Though she benefits from being in power of a less official variety.) and various prostitutes or commoners matter, as well as where Arya's disguise as a boy and her "dancing lessons" are important. But ultimately, it is also a productive way for people to express affection and desire to depict sex and sexuality as a part of normal relationships, such as there are any in the show. The staid fantasy genre for both book and film tends to use or overuse elements of purity and chivalry to exclude sex from the topic all together, to say nothing of sexual politics.

I have some appreciation for these effects. Since the show and the books are ultimately about the use and abuse of power, its impact on sexuality matters and seems to be depicted in a reasonable manner. It might be preferable that women should have greater equality in that world (Lady Stark being one of the few examples to the contrary), but their actions in a world of inequality are what you would expect.

Second, I tend not to be overly squeamish about violence. However, last week's episode had two of the more disturbing uses of violence involved of any show or film I've encountered. One was the highlight of an escalating series of sadistic jollies taken on by the young king, in this case amounting to an S&M match with himself and two prostitutes. In which he has one beat and eventually abuse the other. There is no sex involved and the closest he gets to participating directly is to offer up his belt as a weapon. Followed by a rather grotesque use of a piece of wood railing (I think), that we were mercifully spared from witnessing directly. It is, in other words, not enough that he have something sadistic of his own action, but that he should use this desire to command others to do the same. He's essentially spent all of his reign abusing his authority to do as he pleases to anyone; conducting farcical battles to the death, ordering the deaths of small children, even infants, to be bled in public, and so on. This is, fortunately, not likely to last for long nor does it seem possible to do so as few of the more demented reigns of kings and emperors in our own history could show had great length and power. But it does has all sorts of fallout (some in the public for instance believes it is Tyrion the dwarf who commands these atrocities from the king) that does last a lot longer. and which we can plausibly accept as a genuine reaction from the powerless to the explanation of the actions of their powerful lords and masters (that is to blame some other figure).

I see a similar reaction at play to that of Democrats or liberals to blame Republican leaders or conservative movement figures for actions that Obama has, apparently, willingly taken on his own recourse in preference to their perceived interests. On issues like health care, he got essentially the bill he wanted. There was not, for the most part, a good deal of conservative political influence on the final product. On gay marriage or gay rights generally, he's pushed only as far as he seems willing to have done so and hasn't gone further not because he wants to but is prevented, but because he doesn't seem to want to do so. On marijuana or immigration laws, there's a perception that he is and has been better than conservatives, even though arrests and deportations are actually pretty far up under his administration. On secrecy and treatment of civil liberties. And so on down the line down to some of the acts of violence themselves (assassination programmes of accused terrorists), which go unremarked because at that point it seems, nobody can believe it or is willing to believe that this is a power that would or could go irresponsibly used by this man. A similar affliction was accorded conservatives where President Bush was concerned, or Reagan, etc. Tax increases? Har. Why you must be joking. They wouldn't do that. Torture? No, no, we'd never do that. Except to people who we think deserve it and then we might wink at it. And so on. It's surprising how the powerless justify their heroes and imbue them with a quality of innocence and purity of motive that is entirely undeserved. Because, after all, they are still human beings. And human beings, as we shall see, are capable of being enormously fucked up creatures to one another for no good reason at all.

Speaking of torture. By far the most fucked up thing I've seen happen on this show was the torture sequence. First, it is plainly obvious that they're doing it for sport and to use their cruelty to pass the time rather than to develop good information or for some other supposed utilitarian premise. This is, as best I can tell, more or less how torture is actually deployed when it is in the wild, as it were. There is no actual interest in what a prisoner says or tells us. The point is to abuse them. It only gets covered up in that guise later when people find out about it. Here there was no veil of ignorance and innocence. It was just pure malice and brutality. And of a very... interesting method. They strapped a bucket onto a man's naked chest. After placing a rat inside of it. And then held a torch underneath the bucket to agitate the rat to escape. By burrowing through the chest in front of it. Romans historically we are told were to have applied something similar for some of their sterner capital punishments; throwing a man live into a river with some set of animals, monkeys or dogs or chickens, all tied up into a sack with them and allowing his body to be torn apart as they all drowned but while the animal(s) tried to desperately escape. That too served no purpose in all its malice, to supposedly deter others from the same gruesome fate (something for which I doubt the severity of justice but the swiftness of it did). Here the penalty was being carried out before the eyes of their next victims; victims who had no ability to escape or defend themselves and were simply left out in the open to die one by one to the amusement of their captors in a sadistic game. And what stops this cruelty? Not a demonstration or a letter demanding their oppression cease, nor the release of their captive state. It stops because the lord (Tywin Lannister, richest man in that world) commanding the castle they are at arrives and protests the waste of a body of available forced labourers in such a useless way. It's almost purely self-interest utilitarian command. He doesn't actually care that it is malicious and cruel. He cares that they're killing slaves and prisoners that he could use in a war or to be pressed into his personal service. There are, of course, many utilitarian self-interested motives to the pursuit of human rights of this sort, namely that they help promote a lot of other values we might find productive and useful to a society that practices them. But this was a pretty bold demonstration of such things. And it was all juxtaposed with the application of our malice for no purpose whatsoever. Which is precisely what purpose it usually serves.

As for the rest, several conversations that occur are brilliant. I really liked Tyrion's banishment talk with a King's Guard commander ("I'm not questioning your honor, I am denying its very existence"), and really he gets almost all of the wit to apply to others throughout the series. Arya and Tywin's talk in his war room meeting is awesome. He asks about the legends in the north surrounding her brother (which he does not know it is in fact her brother), and whether he can be killed. To which she responds "Anyone can be killed" with a none too subtle use of sustained eye contact and unspoken silence between the two to follow.  Given where her character is going (she's about to meet up with and eventually train with a band of assassins), it's a revealing picture. Dany got a lot of use of power lines in season 1, particularly as compared to her brother and within the context of her evolving marriage to the Khal as she became as true Khalessi in her own right. But she's getting into bluster mode in her far weakened position.

I suppose I am a sucker for a well-written show or production, and I usually penalise heavily for poor or sloppy writing (hence why I despised the Spider Man movies and the prequel Star Wars films).
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