Books: Play All — Game of Depths |
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Game of Depths

LIKE ANYBODY both adult and sane, I had no intention of watching Game of Thrones, even when 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 Sonya. Swords don’t have to be magic to bore you. Excalibur, after all, though it appears and disappears magically, is not a supernaturally endowed sword: Arthur still has to do the fighting. Excalibur doesn’t do it for him. Nevertheless even a nonparanormal sword is a formula for tedium, because the loser rarely shows the appropriate reaction: sometimes he is transfixed, and stares pointedly ahead as if reading a bad script; but hardly ever does he fall in half. In Kurosawa’s Sanjuro he gushes blood after coming second in a quick-draw competition, but such realism is rare.

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, the fondness rather depends on those lightweight swords making a little hole instead of chopping off a limb. Usually an on-screen swordfight is just a stretch of choreography, dull even when frenzied: or else it gets you into abattoir territory like that scene in the last episode of the first season of Rome when Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson, pioneering the buzz cut) converts eleven gladiators into ten times as many body parts. No, 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, author of the books on which Game of Thrones is based, writes the kind of prose that can 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 with 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 my 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 Robert De Niro in Ronin or Harrison Ford in Patriot Games. Leave that box alone! You don’t have to look at it! You’re sick, and time is short! Lucinda showed no inclination to help me fight my way through the shrink-wrap. We were binge-watching The Following at the time and that seemed kid-stuff enough. 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 not especially stunning blonde princess caressing a couple 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 man on the Iron Throne. As for the top woman of the realm, she is a beautiful expression of arbitrary terror, which is probably the first way to think about female beauty, if not the best.

In a cast list where almost everyone stands out, the evil queen Cersei Lannister stands out most among the women, for she combines shapely grace with limitless evil in just the right mixture 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 willfully 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 a 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, 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 which 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 at gunpoint to start watching, correctly told me to stop bitching about the dragons: they were part of the deal, the price of lowering oneself voluntarily into the pit of the brain.

The dragons hatch and grow up in the rocky realm of Essos, in my view the second-dullest region of the show’s world-girdling range of locations. (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.) 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. Lover and spouse to Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), she who would rule as many as possible of the Seven Kingdoms, 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, whom she tames 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 is not really the sex-bomb that the fan sites say. She is not much more than the average princess next door; but she has access to the only reliable supply of artificial fabrics in the Seven Kingdoms, and on her not especially maddening 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 why it would have been right not to watch, before I get to the more difficult task of specifying the reasons why not watching would have been a loss.

Another reason not to watch 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 CGI zombies. The latter component you can get in a bad movie. (Just lower the temperature of John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars and you’ve got the whole Winterfell thing in a couple of hours, with no reason to watch at all apart from Natasha Henstridge in a teddy.) Continually assembling their forces to smash through the Wall and wreak who knows what havoc in the balmier lands of Westeros, the inexorably oncoming undead violate my ad hoc watching 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 symbol of Winterfell’s incurable 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. What you have to imagine is being trapped in a remake of Assault on Precinct 13 with the set redressed as Ice Station Zebra. Or you could just stop watching.

At the risk of a spoiler, let it be said that the show-runners took a chance when they left it ambiguous about 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 Wilding Ygritte (Rose Leslie)—rather more fetching in her furs, let it be said, than any wispily clad princess from beyond the Narrow Sea—called him Jon Snore and shot him full of arrows. His in-depth moroseness is amusingly celebrated in a YouTube spoof video which 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 is in the intermediate regions, and especially in King’s Landing, where the show begins and to which it must always return, if it has any sense. Luckily it usually does, and we know we will get back to it even when we are stuck outside in 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 Sharp, 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.

Angelic to look at but talented enough to be anything, Jack Gleeson helps the writers give Joffrey 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 few naked prostitutes 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 show-runners 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, our wishes might run out of luck.

Cersei, for example, won’t be climbing the stairs to kiss you goodnight, 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: one flaring illustration of how her mind works should be enough to convince any professional writer that Game of Thrones is a triumph of careful writing as well as of all the other aspects of production. (To be fair to George R. R. Martin and his Dan Brownish prose, the show-runners and chief writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have kept him close throughout the enterprise.) 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. It couldn’t be done on the page with the same force, because you need the close-ups, 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. The show’s long-running 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 show-runners piled them on: perhaps the global evidence that everyone with a brain was watching maddened them into the belief that everyone without a brain should be watching too. 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 the now-famous episode-long torture scene in the second 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 show-runners, 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 clapped-out condition I didn’t find their number and nature anything to be horrified about, but they were nothing to be excited about either. Though Lucinda yawned more often than I did, my breathing was not deep: merely lulled. Some of the female participants looked too gorgeous to be probable, but the same improbability occurs in everyday life, where chance dictates that you will sometimes see Venus Anadyomene at the supermarket checkout counter. There are Australian union officials who spend at least one night a week being thrown around in the middle of a nude beauty contest in a high-tab bordello, and all at the expense of their rank and file. The Saturnalian festivities in Game of Thrones struck me as a way of saying that in a prelegal society the higher whoredom would be an inescapable feature of life at any distance from the court and probably right inside it, if only in an upstairs chamber. 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 to those females high-born enough to keep their clothes on, although this privilege, as always in show business, is mainly given to those who have graduated from the feature list to star billing. Thus we never see Cersei naked even when she is tumbling in the upper tower with her brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a scene which is therefore chiefly memorable not for her body laid bare but for the body of young Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) lying broken after Jaime pushes him backward out of a window.

But if Game of Thrones actually depended on its torture festivals and showrooms of naked pulchritude, it would have been Gore Vidal’s 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 which 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 why there was never a show harder to switch off once it had hooked you. You never knew, for example, what Tywin Lannister would say next.

For the deliciously long time that his character survived, Charles Dance never once chortled before he spoke, but he might well have done, for he was surely well 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 he has ever had, it is the best role of its kind that anyone has ever had. (Rex Harrison got something 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. Had he accepted the role of James Bond when it was offered, things might have been otherwise; but as things were, he was lying around in fragments. 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 Lannister has a polarity that he fits both ways. Tywin Lannister 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 to Entrapment. Tywin is wise from his mistakes, ruthless in his realism, an armed prophet after Machiavelli’s own heart. For any male viewer he 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 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 which 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. But the compliments for his virtuosity must also go to the show-runners, who gave him the opportunity to delight us with the range of his humanity. 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 must sleep in a cell whose fourth wall opens 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 what he looks like 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 a 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 outsize 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 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. Thus 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 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 have seen ourselves shocked when Ned Stark gets decapitated, and we will be shocked again when Tywin Lannister is killed by cross-bow bolts when sitting in the privy. But we can survive those shocks, and might even have been able to bear it if the darling daughter Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), after seasons of being protected like a caged nightingale even 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. Indeed, to put it as compassionately as I can, the dramatis personae consist largely of characters I wouldn’t have minded seeing the back of. I liked the grim realism of Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), but, he being so realistic, how could he put up for another minute with the tedious scarlet woman Melisandre (Carice van Houten, bravely coping with the portentous dialogue of the numinous), the living, shape-changing embodiment of all I find hopelessly trivial about the occult? (Think how much less interesting Cersei would be if she were a shape-changer. Instead, all her deadliness falls within the range of normality. She is a smile-changer.) I also looked forward for far too long to the disappearance of the batso harridan Lady Lysa Arryn (Kate Dickie) down the same hole in the floor of the High Hall of the Eyrie into which she had precipitated so many of her enemies for a vertical trip of six hundred feet to the rocks below. (Our thanks here for a crucial assist from Lord Baelish.) Instances could be multiplied of those begging to be dispensed with.

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 determination of the show-runners 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; and anyway he is us, bright enough to see the world’s evil but not strong enough to change it. His big head is the symbol of his comprehension, and his little body the symbol of his incapacity to act upon it. For all his cleverness, there are times when only a quirk in the script can save him. Real life could kill the dwarf, but the show couldn’t. So finally Game of Thrones stands revealed as a crowd pleaser. To despise that, you have to imagine you aren’t part of the crowd. But you are: the lesson that the twentieth century should have taught all intellectuals. Now it is a different century, and they must go on being taught.