Monday, April 25, 2011

Game of Thrones

Reactions to HBO's Game of Thrones, now just two episodes into its first season, so far have been mixed, but there's an interesting pattern to the mix.

Fans of the books mostly like the series. That tells you the adaptation is reasonably faithful.

Television critics tend to like the series if they've read the books, or if they've seen the first six episodes (which were sent out in preview DVDs to some critics).

Critics who've only seen the first episode or two don't much like it, and neither do many viewers who tuned in to see what the hype was all about, without knowing much more than what they've seen so far. They tend to think it's derivative, teen-boy, D&D, predictable, sexist, racist, and dull. Nasty and brutish, without being short.

Why are the two groups seeing things so differently?

To the uninitiated, it might seem like a case of "well, the fans and critics were just brainwashed by the HBO marketing machine, or they're easy to please." In other words: Those guys are suckers.

But there's another explanation: People who have peered more deeply into the story (by reading the books or seeing more than two episodes) may, just possibly, know something that the others don't.

I've read the books, so I know the second explanation is the correct one, in this case. Without spoiling too many plot points, virtually all of the elements that are drawing fire from one-off viewers and one-episode critics change. Dramatically. All of the formulaic pins are set up, and then a bowling ball careens through them, leaving them all on the ground.

Author George R.R. Martin plays an interesting game in this series: He starts it off like a formulaic, predictable fantasy slog with a cast of stereotypes (the blonde, scheming villain; the savage Dothraki barbarian; the hopeless damsels; the tough, wise dad with a sword; the kids with their matching direwolf pets).

And then he quite deliberately screws with everything. Sabotages it. Inverts it.

That predictable story arc you thought you saw coming? Way off.

You thought the kids and puppies were safe? Sucker.

That foreshadowing you thought you saw? Guess again.

That woman who seemed so passive, and so overshadowed by the guy next to her? Nope, she's one of the most competent, central characters in the series, and he gets himself killed. Try again. (I'm not spoiling any particular plot point there -- I'm spoiling several of them. This happens with more than one character.)

That savage barbarian? Actually, not a bad dude (once we get past his wedding night). Also, not as important as his wife.

That guy you think you're supposed to hate, because he's clearly the villain? No, you're going to like him. Yes, even though he did that horrible thing to a ________. Later, you're going to like him. You won't be comfortable with it, but it's going to happen. (Again, this happens with several characters.)

That's what the critics who've seen six episodes and readers of the books are talking about -- and not talking about. No one wants to spoil the twists and turns, so we're just being vaguely excited.

We've seen hints of this in the first two episodes, each of which ends with an event that's totally shocking, not because it wouldn't happen in real life, but because we're surprised to see it in a fantasy story. If you've seen the episodes, you know the two incidents.

But the whole series is like that. Lots of rugs, and lots of having them yanked out from under you. I kind of hope the critics who think the show is _____-ist and predictable watch long enough to be ... well, floored.

1 comment:

  1. Several rug-yankings and one season later, my above post looks prophetic. Back pats for me.