Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Game of Thrones Season 5 Review
I guess it was inevitable in some way that the season adapting "A Dance with Dragons", by far the worst book of George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series was going to be by far the worst season of HBO's smash hit "Game of Thrones"*. "A Dance with Dragons" is not a very good book in my opinion, being full of unnecessary padding and leaving open far too many plot points to possibly justify itself. Where previous books of the series were in some ways stand-alone complete chapters, "A Dance with Dragons" is just a chunk of story that happens to be bound in a single volume, utterly useless without knowing what comes before or next. So when the show runners of "Game of Thrones", D. B. Weiss and David Benioff, decided that they were going to make huge changes to Season 5, I was pretty much behind it. Change away, I said, it cannot get any worse.
Guess what? It got worse. "A Dance with Dragons" is far from a good book, but it did have good qualities. It is amazing how much we have lost in order to condense things down. There is no Lady Stoneheart, nobody baked any Freys into pies, it seems the battle of Meereen is just not happening (not that it happened in the books either yet), so much of the tension of the Winterfell plothole is completely gone, Ser Barristan's most badass scenes are just not happening this time, etc. etc. Luckily though, even if you are not an avid book reader who obsessively devoured the first four books of the series in a single summer, "Game of Thrones" Season 5 is still impressively awful. Maybe you have never read a word of anything in your entire life, it doesn't change the fact this was still a disappointing and miserable season to watch.
In a lot of ways "Game of Thrones" has been too good to be true. GRRM has created a vast universe with memorable colorful characters, and the show runners have done a fantastic job translating them to the screen. Can you even imagine Tyrion Lannister without thinking of Peter Dinklage? How about the incredible work they've done with Ned, Varys, Davos, Arya, the Hound, Jaime, Tywin, even relatively minor characters like Balon Greyjoy? That one of the largest and most complicated fantasy series ever written has managed to make compelling television, even amazing television is truly an impressive achievement. Eventually their casting luck had to run out, so we ended up with the Sand Snakes. The pacing has been phenomenal, eventually that had to slow down as they ran into GRRM's slow middle portions of his story that ultimately go nowhere. So a solution needed to be found to keep the show interesting during an inevitable rough patch.
There has been a lot of controversy this year over how "Game of Thrones" has treated its characters, particularly its female characters. I have been ranting and raving in the appropriate fan subreddits, but I did not want to post anything official to them until I had seen the end of the season. Nobody was more sad to see Barristan Selmy get killed off by B-level opponents, but I kept silent here. Sansa getting raped was awful and the circumstances leading up to it seemed illogical, but I stayed quiet. Stannis setting his own daughter on fire was probably the last straw for me, after that particular scene I will never enjoy "Game of Thrones" the same way as I have before. Still, I gave the show runners a bit more credit, let them finish the season. I already posted one rant about a show I dropped last month, no need to do it again, I thought. And now that the season is over, I can look back in just complete horror at what a miserable few months of television on Sunday at 9 PM this has been.
Twitter right now is pissed over Jon Snow's stabbing, because it is a random cliffhanger with no previous context. They are where I was four years ago - and they're right to be pissed. There were plenty of ways that D. B. Weiss and David Benioff could have shifted this story up to make for a more satisfying and comprehensible moment, especially since GRRM already fucked up so badly in the first place. But they did not, because ultimately "Game of Thrones" no longer feels like a TV show about characters where events move logically. It is a series of punctuations. Loud shocking swerves that exist to get the Twitter crowd riled up.
Do you think all those comments about "Sansa's agency" and long articles written from the point of view of rape victims about Sansa's wedding night were not planned? This is exactly what the show runners had in mind. To gather up controversy, to piss off the fans, to get videos on Youtube of audience reactions to the episode with millions of views. There were articles on newspapers about this show expressing horror. Politicians spoke out, promising to never watch again. This is all according to the plan. The show runners have seen how well the Red Wedding worked to get people talking about this show and its legendary brutality towards its own characters, and now every season has to live up to that kind of water cooler moment. And in the end, we have ended up with something that is less a fantasy war drama and something more akin to a horror show.
I could go on for hours about how little Sansa's arc in Winterfell has made sense. I'll isolate it to this paragraph for simplicity's sake. Obviously in the books none of this happens, but that is unimportant fanwankery, I'm interesting in a good show more than a good adaptation. There is no reason this could not have worked. Sansa is held by Littlefinger at the beginning of this season. He gives her to the Boltons for no reason - all to play some equally illogical game in King's Landing**. Sansa agrees to marry Ramsay Bolton, the son of the man who murdered her brother and mother, for absolutely no reason at all. This means that after three seasons of Sansa getting nearly raped by Evil King Joffrey, now she finally gets to be raped by the even more Evil Ramsay. Fantastic. She agreed to this? This after claims were written this season that Sansa would "finally become a real player". She ends the season begging for death versus getting raped again - and might also be pregnant just so that her character can be betrayed and raped again symbolically by her biology for another two seasons. Charming.
I can just not watch this show. That is seeming more and more like a reasonable solution.
Lots of fans have been writing long theses looking at Sansa's rape as a systemic anti-female theme within "Game of Thrones". They are so mad that they need feminist theory to explain why the show sucks so bad. I'm not at that point of insanity yet, I don't need any dogmas to explain why I don't like it - it is simply no longer fun for me. But you know, throw in a Sansa pregnancy plotline, another few more rape scenes, like that completely stupid Jaime-Cersei moment from last season that I chose to forget about (and so did the show, thankfully), and maybe I'll be on their side next. There is an extreme when even feminist bloggers are actually making a point.
Much of the characterization in this show seems only to be there to make the horror that much worse. Stannis this entire season has gone out of his way to be a good father and a friendly fellow to even fatties like Sam. What is the point of Stannis hugging Shireen if only to further gouge out our eyes when he suddenly flip flops and sets her on fire? We have Jaime and Myrcella having an actual heart to heart when he reveals that he is her father, and it has to end with her dying of poison, a plot twist that everybody watching called. Jon and Sam have a good buddies moment. Yup, one of these guys ended the episode getting stabbed. This is a dark universe, but not every moment of a person's life has to end with death and violence. I was actually interested in where Jaime and Myrcella's relationship was going, because human emotions and complex father-daughter understandings are on their own interesting. Guess not as interesting as a cheesy Poison Ivy kiss of death trick, huh?
At this point "Game of Thrones" is no longer even a ground breaking unpredictable destroyer of tropes. It is just as predictable as anything else, only the dues ex machinas go backwards. Evil always wins, and it is just as stale as a show where the heroes always win. Ramsay Bolton is a sadist maniac, but he was actually somewhat interesting when he was an uncontrollable lunatic despised by the realm for being a bastard. Now that suddenly he is a handsome respected lordling indestructible on the battlefield and able to cripple armies with only twenty good men, he's boring.
"A Dance with Dragons" was not exactly a great moment for the side of good, all things considered. Dany failed to rule Meereen, Jon got stabbed, the Lannisters seemed to rebound against the threats mounting against them, GRRM would not even let Stannis defeat a group of C-level villains. But now it has gotten so much worse. Any victory, even minor, for the heroes has been removed. (Where the fuck are my Frey pies?? You'd have to be a drooling idiot to cut that!) And now every two episodes is another atrocity, there is a limit to what you can take. The Shireen Burning scene was beyond what I could take. It was so on its face out of character for Stannis and-
You know, I don't even need an argument. I have quite a few, but I am going to leave them aside. There are just things I don't really want to see on TV. These are things which I did not sign up for when I started reading these books and watching the show. A little girl getting set on fire by her loving father for some Evil God that may or may not exist is not one of them. That was awful, simply horrible. Horrible moments can be used effectively to build stories and increase the stakes like the Red Wedding. But in this case, it has done the opposite. If anything now I am less interested in what is coming next. Stannis went to his death in the finale - I didn't care what happened to him, or who won the battle. It is a fight between a man who commit infanticide versus an army of people who carry flayed men on their banners, who gives a shit who wins? There is a point where it is just not fun. Watching a TV show should not feel like an extended funeral every week. Maybe that's what you're into in your entertainment, I won't judge too harshly. But I'm not.
The saddest part about all of this is that I have really lost faith in this show. Faith is not something that comes back easily. It was really a death by a thousand cuts versus any one moment that drove me over the edge all at once. Inconsistencies and plotholes little and big just started to add up. The show runners seem to have completely forgotten that Cersei had four children not three. What about how Melisandre's leeches never actually killed Balon Greyjoy? Yet Stannis continues to believe in her magic nonsense up until he murders his own daughter.
And God, how long have I been ranting and I still haven't even gotten properly to Dorne! That is a plotline so incredibly bad that it is beyond words: bad casting, bad fight scenes, bad plotting, and "bad pussy". Moving on.
Luckily though, this is one season. So I'm going to end on what probably should not be a hopeful note, but will be anyway. Season 5 was a terrible season, but there were moments that worked. The Battle of Hardhome being everybody's favorite, but there was also Tyrion and Varys traveling in their wheelhouse, just about everything related to Cersei, and Jaime and Bronn having adventures - even stupid ones - is fun to watch***. They have a huge cast of talented actors, a great story foundation which GRRM has given them, unlimited budget from HBO, there is no reason D. B. Weiss and David Benioff can't pull this off. They're into uncharted territory now with no book to base their work on, so now they have full freedom to do whatever they want. Just try to be consistent, focus the story on something other than "what appalling thing can we torment the audience with next?" I'll be back for Season 6, but I don't know how long I'll last.
* Boy it is funny reading my reaction to that book from four years today. I can't say my opinion is any different, but I sure appreciate "A Dance with Dragons" more knowing how much worse things could have been. You don't realize how spoiled you are until you see something far worse. I was halfway through writing an analogy to "Empire Strikes Back" before I realized I had already used that same comparison in 2011.
And my prediction about "The Winds of Winter" coming out in five years? Seems to be dead on. Before that used to be pessimistic. Now it is almost too hopeful - and isn't that a depressing thought?
** Most of the reason I did not want to write this review was some level of faith in the writers that somehow what Littlefinger was doing would make some level of sense, it ultimately has not. There had to be payoff to what he was doing, there is none. Maybe next year the show runners will come up with something, but so far it is absolute nonsense.
*** Maybe that is the problem: "Game of Thrones" for the past three seasons has been the Lannister Soap Opera Show. Season 5 separated them and so now the show has no core cast at all and all feels awkward and disjointed, like it isn't actually going anywhere. The Lannisters are the heart of the show now, whether you like it or not, you really need to get those kids back together. Or you know, finally have the Starks form up again, but God help us if something actually positive happens in Westeros.