Saturday, July 13, 2024

Game of Thrones & “Balanced” Criticism

Share This Post

It’s not exactly a secret that Game of Thrones (GoT) negativity is sort of…our niche here on The Fandomentals. I mean, when we’re not writing meticulously-crafted, fifteen thousand word dissections of specific plot-lines (or five thousand words on the show’s insidious sexism for some light reading), we’re kind of memeing. Hard.

To be fair, we do try to strive to strike a balance between snark and sensitivity. There’s a lot that is genuinely funny when it comes to the show (I could watch the gif of Bronn vs. the Sand Snakes all day, every day), but then there’s also deadly serious implications for viewers. Plus, with GoT being the cultural phenomenon that it is, we’re even seeing its handprint in other shows and movies, with media creators outright stating that their show is “like Game of Thrones.”

This is why we feel that a space for critique is necessary, especially in light of the overwhelmingly positive feedback that showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D) are used to receiving. It also seems to be a critique that is resonating with many of you, based on the level of engagement we’re finding surrounding these posts.

However, we have gotten some feedback of our own that asserts how we are overly committed to negativity, and our entire lens is poisoned; that we are fundamentally unable to recognize the “good parts” of GoT, because we are determined to hate it. It’s not uncommon at all for us to see reactions like, “yeah, they’re funny and bring up some good points, but they go way too far.”

I’ll be perfectly honest: this is a giant fear of mine. Julia and I have had intense conversations where we ask each other “what if we’re like anti-vaxxers?” Human brains are susceptible to this thing called “confirmation bias,” where we interpret information in a way that confirms our preconceptions. So between that our increased ability to find others who agree with us (thank you, internet), groupthink is a real thing that can happen.

Granted, surrounding GoT, the dominant version of groupthink is how the show is bold and exciting and amazing television.

Reviews for 6×02, taken from Rotten Tomatoes

Those Emmys didn’t come from nowhere, you know? But even if we’re just Newton’s Third Law-ing it, that doesn’t make us any better, right?

And yet…despite knowing all of these psychological traps, I just really don’t think we’re wrong. Or I should say, I don’t think that I’m wrong, because while I typically agree with what other contributors say about GoT, we are all unique people with unique opinions.

I can only truly speak to my experience, which is that I work overtime to try and be as fair as I possibly can. When I spoke about the pattern of sexism that permeated GoT’s 5th season, it’s because I took the time to research and write a series of nine essays thoroughly dissecting the manner in which D&D scripted characters through the lens of ambivalent sexism, all the while asserting that I do not believe they have any malicious intent towards women. A belief I still hold today. However, as I conclude in the final section:

“Often times when I’ve talked about the show’s sexism, I’ve been told to honor Hanlon’s razor: “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” In the case of GoT, it’s not a terrible idea, because there are just unbelievably stupid plotlines that somehow make it out of the writers’ room, which does suggest incompetence. But the thing is, I don’t have to assign malice in this case. Look at the pattern. These sexist tropes used in the Season 5 narrative are a product of D&D’s writing…they are all the result of alterations to the source material.

So there is simply no other explanation for their liberal employ than that this must be how D&D think men and women act, or that this is what they find to be entertaining. Which means that they understand human behavior from a fundamentally sexist position. Because they are sexists™.”

Though it may make our tummies hurt less to think of sexist individuals as those jerkbags who run around talking about a “woman’s proper place being in the kitchen” and such, the fact is, the way privileges and prejudices can become internalized and ingrained in a person is complicated, and without any willingness to unpack that lens, the result often doesn’t line up with intent.

Plus, it’s not as though I’m purposely ignoring the other side of the debate. I’d argue that I seek it out.

Sexism, of course, is not the only charge that can be levied against D&D. The way in which they adapted Dorne as the land of crazy, sexed-up brown women, where Jaime and Bronn got to have an adventure was basically a perfect example of what Edward W. Said refers to as a “narrative of incident” in his famous book, Orientalism. And this is not made better by the fact that now that the white men are gone, D&D seem to have expelled the location—their “Brazil”—from their story in the most ill-conceived, illogical manner possible, while simultaneously confirming every racist stereotype on which these characters were based.

Add to this the hideous racism in their portrayal of Essos, where the system of slavery exists for Daenerys to win a strawman victory against, yet disappears the second the implications of such a system need to be explored.

“[D&D] will take components of Martin’s world and use it as a meaningless backdrop, and then forget it the second any sort of implication of such a system needs a follow-up. For instance, in 5×03, Varys Marx takes a lot of time to explain the Volantine slavery system. This was something we already knew about from Talisa, everyone’s favourite field nurse, because we guess that made her seem badass or sympathetic or something. But three seasons later, we’re once again walked through the facial-tattoo thing, only this time we’re seeing it up close.

But then, in the same fucking episode, we go into a brothel with sex slaves (they have the tattoo) who act absolutely not in accordance with this established system. They’re perky! and flirty! (and yes, we’ve seen honeypots about “well isn’t that how they’d be forced to behave?” and want to hear none of it). The one sex slave is so sad the men won’t give her attention, and she offers Saint Tyrion free sex for being funny. Because she doesn’t have an owner that would fucking kill her for that or anything.

Fuck you, D&D. You don’t get to decide when slavery is cinematic enough for you to deign to put it on the screen. It’s okay to give someone a compelling backstory, or it makes for interesting commentary on someone’s vacation, but when it actually might affect how someone behaves it’s magically absent?”

And yes, D&D’s pattern of writing plays into other “isms” and “obias,” including homophobia, whorephobia, ableism, ageism, and fat-phobia, which Wendy, Julia, and I spent a good chunk of time explaining prior to this season beginning. As of 6×02, it’s been clear that D&D have simply doubled down on this pattern. This is not shocking, as they gave many interviews stating that “not one word” of Season 6 changed due to criticism. Imagine actually learning something from your mistakes.

Then, even if we’re willing to ignore the highly offensive implications of this show (which…why should we do that, exactly?), there’s the fact that GoT does not hold up on its own. It is a poorly written show. It sounds like an easy and dismissive thing to say, but I came to this conclusion after spending hours and hours thinking over each one of Season 5’s plotlines, in the retrospective series that I co-wrote with Julia:

Yes, we did look at D&D’s adaptational decisions to see how they translated A Song of Ice and Fire to the screens. But we also looked at the show in and of itself. In fact, when writing the retrospective, the story in and of itself was the very first thing we examined, and what we prioritized in our analyses.

My point is, when I say something like, “characterizations are erratic,” this has absolutely nothing to do with how the Cersei of the show is the polar opposite of her book counterpart (actually, oddly, the Cersei of the show is quite consistent, at least in comparison to the others). It is an assertion based on the fact that character personalities and motivations are in constant flux. If it was as a result of character development, it would be one thing, but it’s not.

This season so far, Davos has been the clearest example. His final scene last year was him begging Jon to help Stannis (only to be told “no”), and then looking horrified when Mel turned up at the Wall and in one look, basically admitted to killing Shireen. Davos was crushed.

However, at the start of this season, he is just inexplicably a super fan of the newly dead Jon. We know that very, very little time has passed at The Wall (Jon’s body was still just lying there in 6×01), so this means Davos had something like eight hours in which he decided, arbitrarily, that he was over Stannis’s campaign, over any anger he might have felt towards Mel due to Shireen’s death, and that the one thing he now cared about was protecting Jon’s body (from…?). This is even ignoring his “fuck the gods, perform a religious miracle” line, which was just baldly inane.

Davos is not the only one suffering from erratic scripting, though. Jaime’s personality this year has been stripped down to being nothing a cheerleader for Cersei, which no, is not consistent with the Jaime we knew two years ago. Remember him? He gave Brienne a sword behind his sister’s back so that she could fulfill their oath to Lady Cat? He was worried about Cersei’s drinking and horrified by her continual demonization of Tyrion? The Jaime we’re seeing this year, on the other hand, has an almost feverish devotion to her.

There’s even little details. Theon and Sansa are clearly both supposed to have PTSD, but yet it only pops up when D&D deem it cinematic or not inconvenient to the plot. Because seriously, why else would Theon arbitrarily trust Brienne after being on the receiving end of Ramsay’s hunts before, and then just casually decide to high-tail it to the Iron Islands despite four seasons laying out the groundwork for his “redemption” where he does right by the Starks. Like…this is the story D&D are trying to tell, mind you:

“I think the great original sin of his life was turning on the Starks and betraying them, and he’s regretted it ever since. And now, finally, after all this time comes a chance for a little bit of redemption.” -David Benioff

But you know what? Don’t take my word for it. Try to describe to me Sansa’s personality in the show. Or Brienne’s. Explain to me what Marg’s aims were last year, or what the High Sparrow’s motivation is right now. And please, for the love of the Seven, tell me what Jon’s character development was in all of Season 5? Or Tyrion’s. Or Arya’s. Or Cersei’s. Or Dany’s.

The fact is, personalities and character arcs are simply not prioritized in GoT’s narrative. Again, this is a conclusion I came to after thoroughly immersing myself in Season 5 and trying to understand D&D’s vision. There’s just no sort of significance or meaning to be found, or when it’s there, they don’t seem to recognize it (Hizdahr’s resistance narrative that oddly paralleled Book!Sansa’s A Clash of Kings arc comes to mind).

The few exceptions are the characters that are lacking all nuance, such as Tyrion, who completely matches TvTropes’s definition of a Mary Sue, Ramsay, who completely matches TvTropes’s of a Villain Sue, or like…their strawmen/simplistically innocent people (poor Walda and Shireen). These people at least have consistent characterizations, albeit no arc or development of which to speak.

Oh, and Cersei is a big exception. Though for some reason the fandom is convinced she’s a villain. I wonder why.

Moving past the penning of characters (despite the fact that this is the most fundamental component of any narrative), there’s the show’s actual plot itself. Aside from the pattern of D&D going out of their way to punish the audience for caring (what a FUN viewing experience), there’s the fact that nothing. Makes. Sense. Which again, I spent more hours than I am comfortable to admit trying to sort through it all before arriving at that conclusion. To be honest, it was a conclusion that rather shocked me. Sure, there were a few things that as I was watching Season 5, didn’t seem to add up. But going back and realizing just how unmotivated nearly every character action was… Yes. It was alarming.

I still have no explanation for why Cersei armed the Faith when she did, why Littlefinger felt it necessary to marry Sansa to her enemies for revenge prior to a major battle where he expected Stannis to be the victor (and why did she agree to it?), why the Sand Snakes and Ellaria were hell-bent on killing Myrcella after learning that Jaime Lannister was in Dorne (and why did the kill the dude who told them this information?), why Alliser Thorne let all the wildlings and Jon through The Wall only to stab Jon, why the High Sparrow was happy to go after the Tyrells by setting up a perjury trap (which also required cooperation with a dreaded gay), why Stannis was willing to burn his only heir because he wanted to advance in a feudal society when power comes from the family lineage, why Olenna was willing to “take Littlefinger out with her” to arrest Cersei yet was unwilling to go to war for Highgarden’s only heirs, or why the Boltons stopped caring about the Lannisters just for Season 5 since they were “far away,” only to be very concerned with them again this year.

And these are just questions about why anyone does anything that they do. It doesn’t even touch the “how’s.” That includes more nitty-gritty details such as, how did Arya learn to apply faces, how did Dany magically train her dragons to roast slavers when she was scared of them three episodes prior, how did a raven carry news from King’s Landing to Winterfell within an episode but Mace Tyrell took an entire season to reach Braavos, how is Gilly’s baby still a baby (the timeline issues are seriously getting to be distracting at this point), how did slavers come to randomly love Tyrion for beating them up or decide to free him for no reason, how did Cersei know about the perjury trap ahead of time or know that Littlefinger would be able to set it up…

Seriously, if I list all of this, we’ll be here for a while. Suffice it to say, however, that D&D’s writing did not get magically better in Season 6. In fact, there’s been more backtracking in these first two episodes than the whole of Season 5, I’d argue. The fight for Jon Snow’s body is one piece of it, but there’s also how the fleet they had Daario magically steal for Dany and the peace Hizdahr magically brokered with Yunkai and Astapor both go up in flames because they decided they needed to retread those plotlines (or just give them to Tyrion instead). Or how the kingsmoot is “the law” on the Iron Islands now, despite Theon being referred to as Balon’s heir for years. Then we’ve got the High Sparrow hilariously insisting on Margaery’s guilt for crimes that simply did not exist. I’m sorry, but there’s no way perjury can be this serious.

So really, I’m just utterly dumbfounded at what it is that we’re supposed to consider “good” in this show. The illogic permeates on such a fundamental level, that it’s really impossible not to simply view it as “stuff happens because they feel like making it happen.”

Maybe that’s the issue. I have no suspension of disbelief whatsoever, and that’s because I stopped giving D&D the benefit of the doubt. I stopped rationalizing away narrative choices with sexist implications, because the pattern speaks for itself. When two women are catty towards one another, that’s all I can see now. I stopped honeypotting away plot-holes and shifting character motivations, because it’s clear to be that they don’t put characters first in any of their decisions, nor do they think through any of these plots in general. Their writing betrays, above anything else, a complete lack of care.

Like, this goes beyond teleporting Sand Snakes, which by the way…why are we supposed to give that a pass? Why are we supposed to go “oh yeah, Dorne was bad, offensive, and made no sense, but look at all of this.” If this show is seriously supposed to be the “best drama on television,” why aren’t there any standards applied to it? I’m not talking harsh standards. I’m not talking about counting the gallons per minute on Breaking Bad. I’m talking the standard of “does your plot require telepathy and/or teleportation to make sense?”

But no, really, Dorne is just a very glaring example of these flaws. The Sansa/Theon/Brienne scenes of this season have probably been among the best of any this year, and even they required Brienne to magically know that Sansa escaped Winterfell, the Bolton’s hounds to magically disappear once they found their marks, and Theon to magically get a brand new guiding motivation so he could peace out to a different plot-line. The hugs were nice and all, but the lack of attention to characterizations and detail detracted from their impacts. And I’m sorry, but how is pointing out such fundamental issues with the writing “unfair”? I’m seriously supposed to wave pom-poms every time D&D manage to write a coherent scene?

Which by the way, I actually did do this week. I loved the Yara/Balon scene from Sunday’s episode and was not shy about stating that. Even setting aside the books for a second, it was compelling. Yara’s “where is your kingdom” was quite impactful, and I rather like her. Depending on how it goes, I could see myself getting into her plot-line.

It doesn’t take that much to make me happy—just a scene where dialogue actually resembles a conversation (rather than two people asserting non sequiturs at one another), no obvious plot-holes, no offensive implications for the viewers, and no glaring personality shifts. How is it my fault that this was literally the only scene from “Home” that met this criteria? No, truly, how is this indicative of a terrible bias when the other scenes involved:

  • Bran dropping any interest in his dead dad because Hodor speaks! and Meera being told to suck it up, a dude needs her
  • Another solid minute of watching a disabled girl get beat up for *reasons*, only to have Jaqen be the one to randomly pop in and offer aid because women need to stay catty
  • Toxically Male Tommen’s anxiety about being unable to protect his women-folk being framed in a positive light, while Jaime up and threatens the Faith for *reasons* (plus another assertion by the High Sparrow that Marg is guilty)
  • Tyrion being framed as the all-knowing white man and explaining how dragons work to Missandei and Grey Worm, more eunuch jokes, and the further displacement of Dany within her own plotline (every development getting dialed back for Tyrion to deal with, such as Yunkai and Astapor)
  • A random Karstark popping in to support Ramsay for *reasons*, and then the director just obviously reveling in the grisly fate Walda was about to face (plus the fact that D&D only knocked Walda up for this moment)
  • Theon’s dialogue amounting to “I have to go to this other plot-line now”
  • Euron and Balon screaming non sequiturs on a bridge at one another and the kingsmoot being retconned in as “the law” (Yes, Euron’s bullshit was Euron-like, but I’m not entirely convinced that was on purpose. See: loss of the benefit of the doubt, above.)
  • The Thorne coup just fizzling because they got bored of it or something (remind me why anyone cared about Jon’s body?), Davos needing to give Mel a pep-talk to perform magic he didn’t know about (and has reason to fear), and everyone else being super on-board with this (like Tormund…aren’t wildlings a little suspicious of resurrected dead?)

So…yeah. Maybe if I still gave D&D the benefit of the doubt, I would honeypot away some of this. Or ignore the implications of Professor Tyrion. Or not even notice the Ironborn nonversation, because that type of issue with the writing was something I came to realize only after thoroughly going through Season 5’s footage.

I call this the “show apologist” lens, which maybe is a bit harsh, except for the fact that…I was one. I used to literally come up with rationalizations to excuse away (i.e. apologize for) some of the more idiotic and even offensive elements of GoT’s third and fourth. Because I really wanted to enjoy it, and because I truly gave D&D the benefit of the doubt. I even thought they were telling a “smarter story” than Martin…cutting all that fat, you know. I excused Yara’s trip to the Dreadfort (she just saw the futility, she wasn’t scared of dogs!); I even tried to say that Bran at Craster’s was necessary given his “uncinematic” book arc.

But at a certain point, it became impossible to ignore the show’s glaring flaws. To pretend not to notice how much backtracking there was, how inconsistent characterizations were, or how contrived each situation felt. And once that wool is pulled away, there’s no putting it back in place. Add to that the fact that everything happening this year is so far fitting perfectly into D&D’s pattern of writing—a pattern to which we have continually pointed here—and I truly don’t see how the charge of injustice can be placed at my feet. I’m not the anti-vaxxer; I’m the person shoving tested scientific theories in your face.

Or as I prefer to put it: I’m honest. It’s the show that’s awful.

All images courtesy of HBO.

Latest Posts

Faeforge Academy: Episode 169 – Rebirth

The Void Mother speaks. And Rain must choose... The Faeforge...

The Dissonance: Reflections on a Conversation with Shaun Hamill

We’re doing things a little differently, this time. Shaun...

The Acolyte Delivers The Rest Of The Story, But Still Feels Incomplete

In my review last week, I mentioned that now...

From the Vault: ‘Cotton Comes to Harlem’

"Keep it Black until I get back." The names Melvin...

The Last Alchemist is Rewardingly Challenging

The Last Alchemist challenges players to create the right alchemical properties to cure a man's illness and save the day too.