This Week on Dear Television:
By Sarah Mesle
June 10, 2014
“YOU'RE RIGHT, it’s a bad plan,” Jon Snow says to Sam at the end of this week’s Game of Thrones. His bad plan is to go out, alone, to kill Mance Rayder, one man among 100,000 angry and heavily armed wildlings. Everything about this plan is bad — starting with the part where Jon somehow walks in broad daylight across a wide and snow-covered field, while wearing black, without getting picked off by an arrow — but by this point in the episode, bad plans seemed pretty much par for the course. “The Watchers on the Wall” was supposed to be exciting, but let me speak truth to David Benioff: it is hard to care much about a bunch of “yaaar!!”ing greasy haired people (on both sides) whose capability for advance planning is so remedial I wouldn’t trust any of them to pack sunscreen for a beach trip. Indiscriminate smash-bangery does not a gripping battle make, Dear Television, even if there are mammoths.
Oh, Dear Television. I respect that you tried really hard. You put all the pieces in place: there was a Really Tall Wall (very Cliffs of Insanity), a fire (Why the fire? Bad plan. Still: pretty!), an invading savage horde stomping through a forest (very Tolkien; very Orc), cannibalistic and disfigured (Reaver like) enemy Thenns. The overhead shots were all rather magnificent. My favorite swashbuckling elements were there, and you made me think of some of my favorite stories. But, sigh, you didn’t live up to them. I could never tell who was whacking at whom, or what anyone’s endgame was, or why the invaders at the South Gate didn’t immediately focus on cutting the elevator’s cables — that would have been a good plan! And defending against it would have given the Crows something interesting to do, some measure by which you could tell if they were succeeding. Instead — just whacking. I thought the Crows were losing right until they won. “Both boring and gruesome!,” said Sarah W, on Facebook. “The yawniest giants-on-mammoths I have ever seen!” said me. And then Sarah B, presenting a fully united front of anti-this-episode-Sarahs, agreed that the mammoths seemed “like they were just at their day job at the auto repair shop or something.” I could never escape into you, Dear Television, not in the way I wanted.
Here’s one thing I will say, though, which is that the episode’s failure to successfully generate an escapist, immersive, emotional experience was, in this week of criticism, oddly topical. Escapist fiction, if we can call it that, has been much in the twitterverse: an essay in Slate sparked a maelstrom by arguing that adults should feel “shameful” about reading escapist Young Adult fiction rather than challenging themselves with textually complex and morally ambiguous adult literature. Despite the fact that the essay was, itself, something of an attack (at least in its use of the word shame), its tone was itself rather defensive and embattled. I mean, it’s gotta be hard, right, to be Slate essayist Ruth Graham, objecting to YA. You’re just standing up there, are on this very high wall of LITERATURE, and the YA authors and readers are just invading, I mean they are seriously invading, like a horde of textual wildlings, and they’ve got impressive giants like John Green to come and break down the barricades of culture. Graham’s essay was basically a weird failed attempt to get all of us fiction-lovers to remember our vows. “I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men from sub-par narrative pleasure.” Hold the gate!!!
The whole thing was very tiresome; the essay was silly, and the response entirely predictable; no one is at their best when you tell them to be ashamed. The “conversation” the essay sparked, like this episode, was dominated by whackery rather than strategery; although there were any number of rousing speeches on both sides, it was clear that, if the goal was a meaningful conversation about genre and culture (rather than just pageviews) any victory would only be a Pyrrhic one. Slate! Bad plan!
But the conversation did make me wonder: do you think Ruth Graham likes Game of Thrones? Game of Thrones seems to me like an interesting sort of test case of the literary. Or, put differently, I wondered if thinking about why this episode of Game of Thrones failed, and how we might judge it for doing so, we could get to a better way to start a conversation about genre, aesthetics, narrative, and pleasure; maybe we could end up without pouring shame all over other readers (and, let’s be clear, by the end of it all there’d been a lot of shaming on both sides) like so much boiling oil.
If it seems strange to think about the emphatically adult-programming TV show Game of Thrones in conjunction with an essay about Young Adult novels, I don’t think it should. The question is about genre and sophistication; if we could read very very generously, we might see, in Graham’s essay, the claim that our culture requires sophisticated discernment in its adults, discernment these adults will develop by reading complex, morally-ambiguous stories and will not develop by indulging in escapist, simplistic, and predictable genre texts. I’m not swayed by the argument, but staging it this way, we can see how she might have, logically speaking, written about fantasy rather than YA; fantasy, too, is a genre often disparaged as formulaic and immature. And the pleasures of YA are very similar to the pleasures of fantasy. Both offer the thrill of immediacy: stripping away the abstractions of adulthood (in the first case) and modernity (in the second), YA and Fantasy similarly immerse the reader in encounters where the stakes, the body, the emotions, feel real. (For me, obviously, this is a huge advantage; indeed, my favorite genre is of course Young Adult Fantasy, because why do things by halves.)
But Game of Thrones somehow doesn’t carry the stigma of “genre fiction” writ large: somehow, the HBO seal of approval moved it into the realm of prestige. I’ve been interested to watch it encroach, recently, into Mad Men’s territory as the most cerebral show going (three years ago, English-professor cocktail party conversation was Don Draper, do or die; these days, you’re just as likely to hear about the cultural significance of Danaerys’s cleavage). And if the standard of the literary is, indeed, narrative upset and moral ambiguity, Game of Thrones’s famous willingness to break all the expectations of genre — to kill its heroes, to leave its viewers unsettled, morally torn — certainly hits the mark.
And even in this lackluster episode, there was abundant evidence of the careful writing that has increasingly impressed me over my years of viewing. For a battle story, this episode was surprisingly talky, and its main conversation topic was the different ways we can move beyond ourselves, as solitary and selfish individuals, into a larger community. Love is one way we do this, Jon tells us in the opening scene; love makes you “more than just a person.” For a little while, wrapped up in someone else, “you’re not just you.” Castle Black’s Maester would have us believe that in this, love is the opposite of duty — predictably, as an advocate for a celibate order, Maester Aemon believes that love is a retreat from duty’s civil calling. The episode in some ways backs this up: Gilly wants Sam to stay with her in her hiding spot, and Ygritte fantasizes about returning to the cave where she and Jon could love each other without either of their tribal commitments standing in the way. But the episode doesn’t let us settle on this interpretation of private vs. public, love vs. duty. Partly this is because duty, in this episode, is just a name for a different kind of love — the bond between brothers, which calls itself duty so that it can dare to speak its name. The episode begins and ends with Jon and Sam, because their intimacy is the one that is actually the most urgent to the way both characters are changing.
Sam was fascinating in this episode. In our house, we used to call Sam the “trembling witness to all things,” but he is fully active here. Or rather, his witnessing becomes a kind of action: his attention forced ideas into words, for several characters, and inner experiences into external ones to which television viewers could, themselves, bear witness. I was somewhat irritated by Sam’s scenes with Gilly — the way his love for her enabled a very conventional assertion of manhood, and ironically caused him to dismiss her very reasonable request for solidarity — but I was impressed by the transformation of his character overall. Sam has become a protagonist without becoming a Stark, and that is something that this show sorely needs. What’s more, it’s fascinating to juxtapose Sam in this episode to Oberyn (RIP) in the last. When Oberyn promised survival, it seemed like (and was) a death sentence, but in “The Watchers on the Wall” Sam manages to keep his promise to survive. Plus, the show lets Gilly be smart, persuasive and (meat shank!) resourceful; I liked how the narrative opened up between them, at the end, and am genuinely interested to see what develops.
(About Ygritte: let us not speak further. Her death was ridiculous, very Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves: if you’re going to let your warrior-princess get all emotionally helpless at the key moment, as if her womanly feelings somehow crosswire her personality, you might as well cast Keven Costner and get Bryan Adams to do a power ballad for the soundtrack. You know nothing, D.B. Weiss.)
In short, “The Watchers on the Wall,” Ygitte aside, did have narrative depth and moral complexity. Perhaps Slate would like it. But what does it mean that a bad episode of Game of Thrones would past Slate’s test for good literature? Perhaps that it’s not a very good test. I did not, at the time, care very much about the narrative depth or moral complexity I was watching, even though I obviously highly value both of those qualities. I did not feel sophisticated, I felt detached and frustrated.
And I think what would have made this episode more riveting was not necessarily more ambiguity. What would have improved it was not a retreat from genre and formula, but rather a more ambitious relationship to those modes. At the beginning of this essay, I listed some of the plot points this episode had borrowed from other stories — walls, raiders, even the mammoths (I don’t know why elephants are always the preferred mode of enemy-invasion, but somehow they always are — maybe because of Hannibal?). I did not mean this list as any kind of criticism! I would not condemn a battle scene for evoking the enemy-elephant trope any more than I would condemn a sonnet for using iambic pentameter! Rules and formulas are not the rejection of subtle meaning but rather the condition of their possibility: Shakespeare was a master of the sonnet not because he wrote in perfect meter but rather because he worked in and out of alignment with the form, using its rules to establish expectations so that readers would feel something when those expectations were fulfilled differently, or not at all. Genre norms are not in themselves the opposite of sophisticated meaning; they only lack sophistication when they are deployed in an unsophisticated way. Perhaps Game of Thrones can help us remember that the question is less “is there a formula?” than “what is done with that formula?” It may or may not be the case that some forms (and surely literary fiction is itself a form) make it easier to create sophisticated texts, but my sense in general is that it’s just really hard to tell a good story.
And it’s also hard to be a good reader of stories. As a sometimes-professor of literature, I can assure you that you can bring a reader to narrative subtlety, but you cannot necessarily convince her that there’s a deeper meaning to The Scarlet Letter than “Hester just really needs to be her true self.” (Similarly: I happened to hear FOX-Sports Radio discussing Game of Thrones, and let’s be clear that their discussion of last week’s tremendous episode did not much praise its narrative depth, even though they, like me, were quite taken by the eye-plosion.) The human will to simplify truly boggles the mind.
And that is why, of course, Ruth Graham’s essay was ultimately a failure: it argued against simplification and for ambiguity, but itself relied on a too-simple understanding of how books and reading works. What we see in this episode of Game of Thrones is no clear solution to the problem of how to tell stories that will make us better citizens of our world. It’s hard, as Jon Snow knows, to have a good plan. What I think ultimately is that, when someone finds one, in whatever genre, it’s best to open the gate, and let them go.
It takes all kinds of readers to make a world,