Friday, May 10, 2013

Game of Thrones and a Philosophical Question about Fiction

 Now that I've seen the 4th, 5th and 6th episodes of season 3 of Game of Thrones, I can say that this season is good enough that my opinion of the second season has substantially diminished by comparison.

When I watched the second season last year, I found the first few episodes to often be interminable and oddly paced; it was enough to make me fidget restlessly a bit (which never happened while watching the first season). By contrast, the first few episodes of the current season have been expertly edited and strongly held my interest, even when relatively little was happening plot-wise.

I'm sure some people have complained about the sheer number of scenes that consist entirely of a pair of characters chatting, rather than having the show give us some action instead. Not me. I love the way the show is developing characters in these talky scenes.

One complaint I had about the first two seasons, which I concluded was probably unsolvable, was the fact that the budget had some very conspicuous limitations. I felt frustrated that the show couldn't give us a proper King's Landing riot, or show us thousands of Dothraki warriors, or make it seem that when Stannis Baratheon tried to take King's Landing, he had more than a couple dozen soldiers who got killed on-screen, came back to life off-screen, then got killed again. But I felt it was unavoidable. It's a TV show, you've got a TV budget, so what can you do?

And then, in season 3, the show gives us the sacking of Astapor.

Yes. There. That. It may not be a big-budget Hollywood level of spectacle, but this does a far better job capturing a sense of epic scale than every scene in the show's first two seasons combined. Hopefully this is a sign that the show has finally figured out how to effectively make the most of a limited budget, and not that the show just blew half the money allocated for the 3rd, 4th, and 5th seasons on one scene.

Now, let's move on to my main topic.  After watching Episode 6, I have an important philosophical question about the nature of fictional universes.

George R. R. Martin has generated a large and loyal fanbase who swap speculations about the unanswered questions of Martin's world on websites such as and Tower of the Hand. io9's got a user-friendly introduction to the more popular fan theories. (And yes, these people tend to be smarter and more erudite than Zach Galifianakis on SNL.)

When fans debate the unsolved mysteries of Westeros and speculate on what's coming in the final two (three?) books, they generally ignore the TV series. It's not because they look down on TV as a lower, less literate form of entertainment; rather, it's because the differences between the book universe and the TV universe are significant enough that letting discussion of the two contaminate each other would hopelessly muddle things. (For instance, Ser Loras is the heir to Highgarden in the TV show, but not in the books.) These are two separate fictional universes; they are similar but different.

That said, the TV show is not merely some bit of exceptionally popular fanfic; it is produced under George R. R. Martin's guiding eye. With that in mind...

Back when I wrote about A Dance with Dragons, I said:

I must point out that it's never been shown that Melisandre has the power to reanimate the dead -- everyone just assumes she can, since Thoros of Myr can and he's also a Red Priest.

Well, Episode 6 of the new season gives us something that never happens in the books: an actual meeting between Melisandre and Thoros of Myr.

And what do you know, Melisandre seems utterly astonished at Thoros' ability to bring back the dead. To be exact, it's not quite clear if she's amazed that Thoros can revive dead people at all, or just that he can revive the same person again and again and again. Either way, though, it's a data point that I don't believe shows up in the first five books at all.

Just minutes later, we get a much less subtle piece of information, when Arya and Melisandre interact. Melisandre to Arya Stark: 'We'll meet again'. Or, to transpose that statement to the book universe, 'We'll meet for the first time'. Since in the five published books those two characters have never come within a hundred miles of each other.

So here's my philosophical question, sparked by a scene that may well have been written in a giggling fit of trollery meant only to send fans into a tizzy. If I am to speculate about plot developments in upcoming Song of Ice and Fire books, can I legitimately use these two scenes as a source? Have these TV-universe scenes told us something about the book-universe?

Thus ends my question about philosophy.

A few other thoughts:

  • I must admit that people who find the show problematic about race have a point. It's only in Season 3 when we meet the show's first nonwhite characters who also appear to be trustworthy, decent people. And I hope it occurs to the writers that the series now prominently features a massive army of anonymous brown-skinned foot soldiers led by a blonde white lady. I mean, there's nothing inherently racist here, but you need to be mindful of the tropes you're slinging about.
  • I hope the Theon Greyjoy scenes continue to show us more psychological torture, not just the really-difficult-to-watch finger-slicing torture of Episode 6. This storyline could be an extremely powerful bit of ghastly storytelling if done well, and I've been (mostly) happy with the way it's been presented so far.
  • Speaking of horror, so far I'm a fan of the horrific details the show adds that weren't in the books (but don't contradict the books), such as Varys keeping the sorcerer who castrated him confined in a box, and Selyse Florent's morbid shrine to her stillborn sons.
  • This is as much about the books than the TV show, but after pondering the fact that Hodor is an exceptionally unrealistic portrayal of a mentally disabled individual, I realized that Westeros doesn't have any modern mental health professionals available to render a proper diagnosis. So I've decided that Hodor most likely doesn't have any cognitive deficiency. Rather, he has a glitch in the language center of his brain that prevents him from producing speech correctly. Living in Westeros as he does, the help he needed was never available, so he lacks even the most basic rudiments of a formal education. As he himself would point out, 'Hodor'. 
  • I know that billing prominence is determined by some mysterious Hollywood algorithm that I could never hope to understand, but I'm beginning to feel that the fact that Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth) still isn't in the opening credits is kind of insulting to her.

No comments: