A Quick One-Sentence Question about Games of Thrones

thrones-hardhome

Although I enjoyed the first two episodes of season six, is it okay if I mention, privately and hesitantly, about how I feel that after so many episodes, the world depicted in Game of Thrones should now be a little less mysterious and enigmatic to us, the viewers, not in the sense of wanting an encyclopedia, but rather how it often seems like the characters themselves have no interest in finding out what the other characters want or are trying to achieve or escape, even on the most basic level, like the way no one ever asks what change or improvement in the world this or that cool and knowledgeable magic man or woman is trying to bring about, even when said magic man is demanding that the character devote their life to a barely explained quest or war or frightening exploit, or how, as the viewer, one has no idea (still) how each group of magical people relate to another (or whether they even know of each other’s existence), and perhaps most significantly of all, how the non-magical people in this world seem (understandably) surprised by the appearance of giants, zombies, enchanted blades (and so on) but only ever initially, only during the actual scene itself where the magic thing is relevant, and then, afterwards, rather than asking where other giants might be, or what a bunch of wise-sounding assassins do the rest of the time, or what other powers a magical blade might have, they just accept these things and shrug, and a few times this is of course fine and plausible because they are racing away from a fire or whatever but this has been going on for years, people, YEARS, and, unlike the viewer, almost everyone in Westeros is still treating the supernatural and the uncanny merely as shadowy, ancient myths — not as staggering clues into the true metaphysics of one’s universe, not as upheavals worth investigating and discussing endlessly if only to improve one’s own chance of survival — as though these repeated encounters with the super-powerful are experiences inherently opaque to human understanding, of no interest once the immediate threat has passed, and that it’s best to go on trudging through the snow, and that, in addition, how I feel, personally, that this tendency leaves the entire series feeling less like an actual story, a coherent piece of narrative seeking some sort of conclusion, and instead more like an impossibly well-made soap opera, full of formless, indefinite action, set in an increasingly depopulated and empty continent, where magic is brought in simply to provide the viewer with the illusion of progress, to promise you that SOMETHING is going to happen and it’s going to be so amazing when it finally does, in the exact same way that you, dear reader, are wondering if I am at last going to make a definitive claim about the nature of fantasy, or of television, or of authorship, wondering if I will (at last) say something you can properly disagree with, but you have foolishly turned your head away from the young woman in the leather bikini with the spear who lunges and —

10 thoughts on “A Quick One-Sentence Question about Games of Thrones

  1. Daniel,

    I know you’re a student of storytelling craft. Are you by any chance familiar with media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s nonfiction work Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now?

    The reason I ask is because in the book Rushkoff identifies what he calls “postnarrative” storytelling, a relatively nascent form that deviates from the linear, three-act “hero’s journey” structure articulated by Joseph Campbell — in which stories become more closed as they reach their conclusion — in favor of interminably open-ended tales that are “not about creating satisfying resolutions, but rather about keeping the adventure alive and as many threads going as possible. There is plot — there are many plots — but there is no overarching story, no end. There are so many plots, in fact, that an ending tying everything up seems inconceivable, even beside the point.” These would include Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Lost, The Walking Dead, Heroes, The X-Files, Orphan Black, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to name a handful. What these sprawling, often ensemble-driven series with their rabbit-hole mythologies reflect is our cultural shift away from a world in which events unfold sequentially, over time, toward a “hyperlinked reality” in which all things occur simultaneously, in the present: The text messages that distract you during your dinner date, just like the “Easter eggs” in the Marvel stories that point to other adventures unfolding concurrently (in one of the countless other movies or television shows), are constant reminders that we exist now in a continuous state of “presentism,” where what’s happening later is irrelevant — it’s all about what’s happening elsewhere. Nothing gets resolved, you see, when there’s always another subplot to cut away to.

    As such, whereas stories in the Aristotelian mode were designed for value extraction — a takeaway “moral of the story” — postnarrativity is only about pattern recognition: What do the numbers mean on Lost? Who do you suspect are Jon Snow’s biological parents? Does the monster-of-the-week on X-Files have a supernatural origin or a scientific explanation? For that reason, postnarrativity can be very exciting, because it doesn’t follow that predictable three-act structural pattern of Joseph Campbell, but it can also grow, over time, into a frustrating experience, because, as viewers, we do long for catharsis — for closure — and that’s not the function of postnarrative storytelling, hence the reason audiences responded so unfavorably to the final episodes of postnarrative shows like Lost, The Sopranos, The X-Files, and Seinfeld — we wanted the one thing from those series that they were never intended to provide: a conclusion.

    So, in a way, this post you’ve written is very “postnarrative” in nature, right down to its refusal to actually end! (Much like the last shot of The Sopranos, you opted to cut off rather than conclude!) If you’re interested in learning more about this, I published this blog post on postnarrativity (which Rushkoff himself endorsed), and have dedicated many posts since to studying its prevalence in fiction, television, and comic-book movies. I think it might be right up your alley.

    Sean

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      • Crawdad Joke Soon below calls Game of Thrones “purposefully and strategically bad story telling.” Postnarrativity isn’t bad storytelling, necessarily, it’s just another way of seeing the world — one we’re less used to than the cyclical Aristotelian arc — where the object isn’t to reach a resolution, but simply to keep the game going. The mistake Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof made — a lesson thus far unheeded by Geroge R. R. Martin, who has clearly lost control of the narrative of A Song of Ice and Fire despite the fact that he insists he has an ending in mind (trust me: he doesn’t) — wasn’t his perceived failure to adequately pay off the series’ myriad plotlines, for that would have been both impossible and ultimately irrelevant, but rather his repeatedly publicly reinforcing the viewership’s mistaken notion that all of the mysteries and motifs were building to a grand, meaningful climax in which questions would be answered and some spectacular catharsis awarded to the legions of faithful obsessives; Sopranos fans, on the other hand, couldn’t even hazard a guess one way or the other as to how that was going to end — Does Tony live? Does he die? Something else altogether? — because series creator David Chase never conditioned them to expect much in the way of conclusion or catharsis — and never provided it, either. Audiences who grow frustrated or dissatisfied with postnarrative stories (which is not to say they’re all good, as Heroes and Fear the Walking Dead have demonstrated) are simply imposing Aristotelian expectations on their fiction, which is understandable given how deeply embedded in our collective psyche that mode of storytelling is.

        To me, this is a fascinating subject because for the first time in several millennia we actually have an emergent storytelling form that hasn’t yet been codified — it doesn’t conform to the literary “rules” as we understand them, starting with the Epic of Gilgamesh through the waning days of the twentieth century. But, whereas once stories with sprawling, endless plots and no conclusion or takeaway were once unquestionably considered bad writing, now they’re the stuff of billion-dollar franchises. And anyone who studies the craft has to be compelled, I would think, to ask what that says about us as a culture.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Sean, these are really interesting ideas. I think a crucial issue is one of reader / viewer expectation. Is this new form of storytelling a genuine new thing, or is it simply “fooling” the audience by holding the promise of something it can never deliver?

          Also — would you, for instance, feel that this writer is missing the point:

          http://www.vox.com/2016/5/8/11566614/game-of-thrones-jon-snow-parents-recap

          “For starters, it means he has a plausible claim to the Iron Throne — not just to Winterfell — a claim that would be strengthened by marriage to Daenerys, which would be a convenient way of bringing together the two main surviving “good guy” protagonists of the series… But now, years later, Jon’s Targaryen blood would seem to set him up for something to do with dragons and perhaps a bid to sit on the Iron Throne as part of his larger mission to save the human race.”

          Clearly, for this Vox writer, Game of Thrones is a conventional fantasy epic, more or less, which is building to a grand conclusion. Is that a faulty analysis?

          Another thought to follow…

          Liked by 1 person

          • — this form of storytelling really seems like the creation of television and multi-volume fantasy novel series. A dramatic film (perhaps) naturally tends towards Aristotelean form, because it will be over in two hours, and the producers want everyone to run out and tell their friends to see it. Marvel movies, as you say, may offer an alternative to this model, as they need to signal to other movies in the sequence.

            But, in contrast, a television series is always going to be incomplete, inconclusive, by definition, because its producers want viewers to keep watching forever. The “truth” of the X-Files can never be revealed because then the series would end, and so viewers (such as my younger self) who wanted to get somewhere with the conspiracies and overall-narrative were perhaps missing the point…

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          • What I personally find so interesting about Yglesias’ exhaustive analysis, regardless of whether GoT is in fact building toward, as author George Martin routinely insists, a grand Lord of the Rings–style finale, is that it reinforces the driving function of postnarrativity: It is storytelling as an exercise in pattern recognition, not value extraction. Anyone waiting for a “moral” to this story, whether or not one is ever provided, is missing the point entirely: Speculating as to how all the disparate pieces connect — how everything is “hyperlinked” to something else in the sprawling, interconnected world of the fiction — is the juice we squeeze from these shows; the catharsis of a conclusive resolution is as elusive as it is beside the point. Lost and Seinfeld are two great examples of shows about pattern recognition that unwisely tried to conclude with an Aristotelian moral, and both final episodes felt inauthentic and unsatisfying as a result. Granted, postnarrative shows that don’t provide resolution, like The Sopranos and The X-Files, also run the risk of leaving faithful viewers dissatisfied, but in my view that only serves as further evidence that a rewarding dénouement must be immaterial if it can’t be achieved either way. And how could it, really? How could all the plotlines and motifs of a show like Game of Thrones or Lost really tie themselves up in a final bow that pays off every character, every subplot, every turn of action throughout the run of the series the way a closed-ended narrative like Lord of the Rings does? I mean, does anyone really watch The Walking Dead to see how the zombie plague is eventually overcome, or is that irrelevant — and that the point is merely to enjoy the very particular world of the fiction from week to week for however long it lasts?

            And if the intricate fan theories written up on blogs and bandied about on message boards (if those even still exist!) aren’t evidence enough that these series are all about pattern recognition, look how many of them have official aftershows dedicated exclusively to puzzling out every little thing we just watched and how it fits into the grander narrative arc (like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Orphan Black, for instance). Where it’s all going is (far) less important than how it all connects. In a prescriptive narrative, we take meaning from the ultimate thematic lesson the author has attempted to impart (Dorothy learns “there’s no place like home”); in postnarrativity, we take meaning, such as it is, from how all the characters and subplots and “Easter eggs” correlate with one another (Spider-Man shows up in Civil War and now it opens up a whole new dimension of that shared cinematic universe). Such is the case in our 21st-century postnarrative world where linearity — events that unfold in sequence — has been replaced by continuity — events unfolding simultaneously. That’s the reality we live in now courtesy our always-on digital technologies, and that’s what’s being reflected in our popular fictions, be it Game of Thrones or Marvel or even Real Housewives.

            But, to answer your question: Yes — I do believe Yglesias’ perception of GoT as a conventional fantasy narrative building toward the inevitability of conclusion is a faulty one. I have a friend who obsessively watched Lost — he loved every minute of it… till the last episode. When the finale fell short of his lofty expectations — when it failed to pay off every little motif and misdirection — he retroactively deemed the entire series “terrible.” Now he’s taken with Game of Thrones, studying and examining every little detail, and is eagerly awaiting a grand finale to that, and I’ve asked him, “But, if the last episode sucks — like Lost‘s did for you — will that change your opinion of everything that came before it post factum?” He insists, however, that’s not going to happen, because “George Martin has said he’s got an amazing ending planned.” At that point I remind him that “so did Damon Lindelof, allegedly,” to which he responds: “Sure, but Lost was a terrible show.” Terrible now, perhaps, but he enjoyed it immensely up till its final airing. He just failed to understand that the point was to take his enjoyment from the intellectual debate it provoked so reliably week after week, and not to pin his overall assessment on how everything ultimately paid off. He disagrees, of course, and says all stories should aim to reach a hard-won conclusion befitting the story that led up to it, but I don’t see that as the case. Structurally, postnarrativity is a different beast than Campbell’s hero’s journey — that much is obvious — and I’ve yet to see it end like a classical narrative arc. So, clearly the governing conventions are distinct from the linear arc we’re used to, we just haven’t yet learned, as viewers/readers, to stop conflating the two. Which is why, I think, it’s all the more important for writers and scholars to begin to codify this emergent form, so artists can take more control over their own work — and their audience’s expectations accordingly.

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