Sunday, July 14, 2013

Death and David Foster Wallace's "Danger" in Game of Thrones

This is a post about Game of Thrones, a show I have a hard time ~analyzing. I always just end up with extensive character studies of Jaime* or like half-finished Jaime-centric fan fiction** when I try. The first part of this post is sort of about why I can't analyze the show; the second part is analysis of it. Part 1 is how deaths are presented, and Part 2 is the fact that they're presented at all. There might be a Part 3 that's just like... predictions about Jaime's storyline in Winds of Winter. Pictures of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Who knows. ~Anything could happen.


* "He understands how hard his world makes it to be a good person" etc.

** "I killed him," Jaime said flatly. "Make no mistake. I stabbed him in the back. Rossart, too—not in the back, in the belly—but nobody seems to remember Rossart. Why the back? Aerys was standing at the foot of the Throne when I approached him, blade bared. He knew what I intended, I'm sure. He turned, grasping for the arms of the Throne to pull himself up, and the malevolent thing sliced the fingers of his right hand half off. Do you know, I rather think it was helping me?" Pod's face was pale. Good. Jaime gave him a twisted smile. "Not that I needed it. My sword slid in easily. When I gave it a twist I could feel it grating against his spine." 


Part 1


Game of Thrones is violent. I like this. Why do I like it? Why was I ~gladdened by the sight of Jaime's half-healed stump? (Just Googled "Jaime Lannister stump" looking for a picture of Qyburn tending to it in Episode 7 so you could be gladdened too but couldn't find one and I'm p sure I won't take the time to look for the scene in the episode itself so yeah thank me for that) Why was I was hoping they'd show Grey Wind's head sewn to Robb Stark's body; and why, when they did, did I watch the scene at least three times? Why am I not bothered by how how bloodthirsty the show makes me? Is "why" even the right question to ask?

I wondered how far they'd go with the Red Wedding, but in terms of what from the books we would and wouldn't get to see—Catelyn's throat getting cut, for instance. I couldn't have wondered "Will they show Talisa's pregnant belly being stabbed with a dagger sixteen times" because I couldn't have imagined the show would surpass itself like that, both in invention and execution—and I'm not sure I don't mean "surpass" in a good way. Emotionally, I experience this show on the first of the Film Crit HULK's four levels—which he wrote about in response to the Red Wedding episode!—in that when it comes to GoT I have what he calls "an easy sense of transference"; I watch it and "can't help but feel like it's real." I don't, though, dislike things that make me feel bad, as he says level one consumers tend to do. On the contrary. Talisa's death sickened me (it, at least, I didn't watch more than once). I sobbed. I was far more shocked and drained by that scene than I expected to be, but I... admired, even commended them for going there, and for taking me, emotionally, so wholly along with them.

In the same vein, have a whole paragraph I could write about how I not only like the (female) nudity but experience it as if I'm its target audience—as a straight ~guy might, whatever that means? I think, though, I'll just leave it at: I feel like not only do I watch the show from the HULK's first level, but I think I experience it as intended, in that both the way it presents its "explicit content" and the way I consume it are completely unabashed. Which is also what makes it hard to step back and say wait—what is intended here? Is it anything more than an essentially pornographic experience? Will trying to answer that question make my basically reveling in violence and misogyny more or less okay? And if I want to avoid pronouncing it "okay" or "not," what kind of questions should I ask instead?


Part 2


The above was about the explicitness of GoT's deaths, and how I sort of revel in them, and how if I'm bothered by anything, it's not that, but the fact that I'm not bothered by that. And I'm not even bothered by that! I don't know. But my real reason for writing this post isn't the deaths' goriness; it's the fact that they take place at all. 

I'm fascinated by how suspense is created—by why when Kirk, in "The Galileo Seven," strands Spock and co. on Taurus II, even though I know that the nature of the show absolutely guarantees their survival, I am literally SCREAMING "TURN AROUND, TURN AROUND, TURN AROUND" at the screen. And by why—even though Raleigh's fate at the end of Pacific Rim was technically uncertain—as his escape pod shot toward the breach, then as Mako swam toward it, I felt no tension whatsoever. That tension, it would seem, has absolutely nothing to do with what you know or don't know is going to happen. It's all craft. (And figuring out what the craft is is a whole other post/lifetime entirely.)

In "The Galileo Seven," there's tension, but, as David Foster Wallace might argue, no true danger. In his 1988 essay "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young," he writes about what I would argue Pacific Rim (as opposed to, say, TOS) could have had: a feeling of danger created by the (technical) possibility of death.
Try to recall the last time you saw the "hero" die within his drama's narrative frame. It's very rarely done anymore. Entertainment professionals have apparently done research: audiences find the deaths of those with whom they identify a downer, and are less apt to watch dramas in which danger is creatively connected to the death that makes danger dangerous. The natural consequence is that today's dramatic heroes tend to be "immortal" within the frame that makes them heroes and objects of identification... I claim that the fact that we are strongly encouraged to identify with characters for whom death is not a significant creative possibility has real costs. We the audience, and individual you over there and me right here, lose any sense of eschatology, thus of teleology, and live in a moment that is, paradoxically, both emptied of intrinsic meaning or end and quite literally eternal. If we're the only animals who know in advance that we're going to die, we're also probably the only animals who would submit so cheerfully to the sustained denial of this undeniable truth. The danger is that, as entertainment's denials of the truth get even more seductive, we will eventually forget what they're denials of. This is scary. Because it seems transparent to me that, if we forget how to die, we're going to forget how to live.
If there's one thing you can't accuse GoT/ASOIAF of, it's helping us forget how to die. Martin is great at creating a sense of danger. It's because of the relentless brutality of the world—people being maimed, skinned, emasculated, anally gang raped, having their faces chewed off, etc. everywhere you turn (and this is a brutality that the show actually amps up****)—but it's also because, with Ned's decapitation, he connected all that danger with the ever-present possibility of what makes it dangerous, AKA death.

Now, the Film Crit HULK argues that Ned's death is pretty much all the books have going for them:
HULK THINK THE FIRST BOOK = A GREAT STORY AND THE SECOND HALF OF THE THIRD = THE PERFECT KIND OF NUTS. BUT HULK THINK THE GOODWILL OF ENTIRE SERIES TRULY INDEBTED TO BRUTAL, DEEPLY RESONANT MOMENT WHERE THEY KILLED OFF NED STARK. HULK TALKED ABOUT THE SHOCK OF THAT INITIAL READ AND HOW ELECTRIFYING IT FELT. SO FROM THAT POINT ON, READING THE BOOKS = TRYING RECAPTURE WHAT MAKE THAT SINGULAR MOMENT SO GOOD. ONLY THIS A FALSE AIM. THE REASON FOR THIS TWO-FOLD: 1) BECAUSE WE SUBCONSCIOUSLY CRAVE “THE SHOCK” THE READER CAN NO LONGER EXPERIENCE IT IN SAME WAY AS ONCE DID. THIS AMPLIFIED BY 2) MARTIN NOT REALLY HAVING MUCH ELSE TO DRAW BACK ON WHICH CAN ACHIEVE SAME LEVEL OF RESONANCE. HE NO WRITE BEAUTIFUL MOMENTS. HE NO WRITE CATHARTIC MOMENTS. TIME AND TIME AGAIN, MARTIN COME AT YOU WITH THE SAME EXACT TACTICS OF DOURNESS, DEATH, AND SHOCK. ONLY NOW THEY LESS AND LESS EFFECTIVE . HECK, IN NEXT BOOK, ANY CHARACTER COULD DIE FOR ANY REASON AND IT NO SURPRISE HULK WHATSOEVER. FUCK, DANY COULD GET HIT BY A BUS.
For me, these same exact tactics... still work. Sort of. At this point, after abandoning Feast for Crows about 3/4 of the way through, the only characters I'm invested in are—well, sort of Cersei, but primarily Jaime and Brienne, even after Brienne's (and Jaime's!) practically unforgivable FFC chapters, and I won't get into why because the investment is partly about loving them (again: extensive character studies of Jaime, Jaime-centric fan fiction). Not only are two characters I love now in a situation where the both entrenched and evolving ideas about honor that are so central to both their characters are finally going to be put to the test (!!!!) but. When this happens, one of them may have to kill the other, and knowing Martin—and the credibility he earned, way back when, with that one shocking, electrifying death—it's perfectly possible that they will. The thing is, though—that wouldn't matter if I didn't care about them. Martin may be good at danger, but Jaime proves that he can be (even if he isn't consistently) good at character too. And that's just as essential to danger as the possibility of death.
*

"Real" danger, aka danger "creatively connected" to death. Tension, or the feeling of danger with no possibility of death. The possibility of death, but no feeling of danger. It seems to come down to craft (in TOS' case), the stones to kill major characters (in Martin's) and the skills to make you care about them first (in both). This was, in the vein of "How to Write Sci Fi According to Star Trek," supposed to be "How To Write Fantasy According to GoT"—and now I've a list of three things to have, but not how to get them. Well, as far as #3 goes, an Extensive Character Analysis of Jaime is clearly in order. But that's a separate post. For now...

*** Talisa; Ros; Theon's almost-rape (both times?); Selyse's fetus collection; Varys' castrator with his mouth sewn shut—I was constantly amazed this season by how much farther than Martin they felt they needed to go

Part 3







Told you anything could happen.

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