Sunday, August 13, 2017

August's Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman -- Game of Thrones (GOT): it's about what?

Chaos is a ladder...
only the climb is real; 
the climb is all there is. 

 House Rep Ted Lieu, D, CA, panelist on an MSNBC news program, pushes forward his toy replica of the Iron Throne, announcing that what's missing from GAME OF THRONES on Capitol Hill is beheadings -- we've got collusion, lying, coverups..... Lieu's glee speaks to the GOT phenomenon -- as though each TV moment were happening in real life. Slavish analysis of every episode in multiple media outlets reflects peak fever over George R.R. Martin's popular saga, The Song of Ice and Fire turned HBO-blockbuster as it moves into its concluding seasons directed by writer/show-runner team, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. (See Martin, center; Benioff, left; and Weiss, below.)

Novelist Martin has been called 'the American Tolkien' in the epic fantasy genre. There is plenty of fantasy to go around -- a lethal army of walking dead, dragons the size of 747's, three-eyed ravens who see everything there is or was, and a messiah-king risen from the dead. But the hard core of GOT is human and political drama in a medieval setting (inspired by medieval European monarchies -- the British War of the Roses is cited). It is a time of wood, steel, leather, fur, and fire in which magic takes a back seat to complex human relationships, intertwined familial connections, political intrigue and wars of conquest. The writers offset warring with just enough lingering, quiet intimacy among characters to make you feel their world is real. These bits of human magic are the series' glue.
(Below, Jon and Daenerys.)

In its favor, the story make us care a great deal about its main characters; it stirs thought about religion, politics, ethics, and especially power; and wanders the globe for gorgeous visuals-- Ireland, Croatia, Spain, Iceland, Morocco. On the down side, GOT tirelessly offers up nudity, sadism, and gore. There are two or three heart-warming scenes of love-making to date, the unsexy rest are rapes or annoying soft-porn panders to male juvenilia. The project overall is better than its lowest common denominators, but the quality is demeaned by all that pandering.

The narrative begins in Winterfell, Land of the North, one of the seven kingdoms of the continent of Westeros, and it shifts to other kingdoms involved in the power struggle over the Iron Throne in King's Landing, the rule of which includes dominion over the seven kingdoms. The very first scene in Season One introduces us to Westeros's unseen threat -- the Night King and his Whitewalker army who will come from the frigid north. The threat makes a nice stand-in for modern-day global warming -- an incipient catastrophe that nations are too busy fighting each other to band together and vanquish. Three great families fight over the Iron Throne (below, l to r. Khal Drogo, siblings Daenerys and Viserys Targaryen, the Lannisters, King Baratheon, the Stark family).

Our sympathies are engaged foremost by the appealing Starks in their northern home of Winterfell -- headed by Ned (Eddard), the Warden of the North, his wife Catelyn Stark, and six children. In the first episode, they are visited by the ruler of Kings Landing, Robert Baratheon and his entourage including his Queen, Cersei Lannister, her soldier twin brother, Jaime Lannister, their articulate, sardonic brother, dwarf Tyrion Lannister, and the three young Baratheons (unknown to King Robert, the offspring of Cersei and Jaime's incestuous relationship). 

The King, old warrior companion of Ned Stark, has come to offer Ned the post of 'hand of the king' (chief domestic and military advisor). Events that transpire there and soon after lead to enduring hostilities between the Lannisters and the Starks. Cersei is the luminous and power-mad villain of the saga, and dwarf Tyrion, the intellectual and pragmatic center. (Tyrion, Cersei, Jaime, below).

The Targaryens have ancestral claim to the throne. Robert Baratheon became king by deposing the mad Aerys Targaryen. The Targaryen children escaped assassination by fleeing to the (Asian/African-like) tribal continent of Essos. Daenerys Targaryen matures with the drive to re-take the Iron Throne. Meanwhile she has conquered some Essos peoples, freeing slaves and working toward establishing humane rule. Her reputation, however, is based on her having emerged unscathed from the ashes of husband Khal Drogo's funeral pyre carrying three reptilian offspring; she becomes known thereafter as the Mother of Dragons (below).

Ned Stark's bastard son, Jon Snow, is destined to join the Nightwatch, a group of misfits/warriors whose job it is to guard the 700-plus ft high, 300-mile long wall of ice that separates Winterfell from the Wildlings in the North (a concept reminiscent of Emperor Hadrian's wall built to divide Roman Britain from the unruly, unconquered tribes of Scotland).

Jon Snow befriends the wild folk beyond the wall, a rugged free people one might compare to medieval era Scottish Picts or Scandinavians (below, Jon and Ygritte, a Wilding, and yes their adventures together, love affair, and her death offset the tacky brothel scenes).

Menaced by the Night King (below) and frigid climate, the Wildings are persuaded by Jon to move to the Winterfell side of the Wall, where he hopes they will have easier lives and also join the coming battle against the Night King's army. For this strategic wisdom, Jon is killed by some in the Night Watch who have always fought Wildlings and are too conservative to think outside the box. GOT's audience is grief-and horror-struck -- there was something beyond ordinary about Jon Snow.

Grief lasts until the following season when Jon Snow rises from the dead and is declared King of the North. Jon's parentage is disclosed in Season 6; he is revealed not to be Ned's son but his nephew -- the child of Ned's sister Lyanna Stark and her lover, Rhaegar Targaryen (much older sibling of Daenerys and Viserys). The knowledge goes with Ned to his grave to protect Jon from assassination, as the Baratheons and Lannisters want no living claim to the throne other than their own, which they prove early and often.

We are now in Season 7 where Daenerys and Jon have a frosty first meeting, the fire and ice of Martin's saga title, on whom the battle for the Iron Throne and the struggle to turn back the Whitewalker army will depend. The dwarf, Tyrion Lannister, having killed his father and escaped his sister Cersei's wrath, has become Daenerys 'hand' and helpful guide to the sociopathy of the Lannisters.

The above brief omits the separate story lines of each of the Stark children in their sometimes plodding, far-flung travels and other villains, heroes, and minor characters. As the series and years have progressed, we've watched children and dragons grow up and many die whom we mourn but must be gone before the final battles occur. There's a story line exploring the rise of an extreme religious sect, the Sparrows, with its twisted Iran-like authority, and we've adventured to other Westeros kingdoms and met some minor characters with possible importance. One is Gendry, a bastard son of Robert Baratheon who missed his rendez-vous with death by the Lannisters; another is schemer Lord Baelish, called Littlefinger; and there is also kind Samwell Tarly (below), who studies to become a Maester (healer, scholar, advisor), discovers the means to kill Whitewalkers, and may even be the author of the fire and ice origin tale (a fan theory).

It is soap opera, adventure, and spectacle for a mass audience but what heightens it now is the politics of authoritarianism in our own century. Lately, GOT has become a convenient narcotic to help sublimate anxiety over an infantile U.S. president and his scary responses to environmental and military threats.

Jon Snow poses the global threat to Tyrion Lannister: "Grumpkins and Snarks you called the Whitewalkers...How do I convince people that don't believe me that an enemy is coming to kill them all?". Tyrion replies: "Peoples' minds aren't made for problems that large...It's almost a relief to confront a comfortable, familiar monster like my sister [Cersei]."

In Season 7 (and 8 to come) the remaining players reconnect after terrible solo adventures. Little Arya is now a lethal assassin; Bran, after a crippling fall has become a seer (our vehicle to know things other characters do not, such as Jon's origins); and Sansa, a shallow pre-teen, has grown into commanding womanhood; they have now reassembled in Winterfell. Jon Snow has made his case to Danerys about the coming onslaught of the Night King's army and the need to fight them together -- dragon fire against Whitewalker ice. The two extraordinary Targaryens size each other up with suspicion and the hum of attraction.

Jon tells Daenerys that her followers believe she can make the impossible happen -- build a world that is better than their old one; but "if you use your dragons to melt castles and cities, you're not different, you're just more of the same." Season 7 is a turning point in which we move from picaresque adventure into the confrontations among the main characters that will lead to resolution, filling watchers with dread and hope. Jaime leading Cersei's army and Daenerys leading hers, fly at one another, blasting the battlefield with unimaginable results, all "fire and fury, the likes of which the world has never seen". But Danerys' first battlefield is a desolate plain -- not a castle or city.

Note: There are too many actors to name but American-birthed GOT is populated by top talent from the largely UK acting establishment such as Sean Bean, Diana Rigg, James Broadbent, Anton Lesser, David Bradley, Jonathan Pryce, Mark Gatiss, Charles Dance, Ian McShane, Iain Glenn, Ciaran Hinds, Clive Russell, Aidan Gillan, Julian Glover, James Cosmo, Michelle Fairley, Lena Headey, Max von Sydow, Natalie Dormer, Rose Leslie, Ellie Kendrick, Oona Chaplin,and Gemma Whelan, to name some. A few young Brits have gotten career boosts since GOT's first season in 2011: Richard Madden, Kit Harington, Maisie Williams, Sophie Turner, Isaac Hempstead Wright, John Bradley. Americans are few but notable: Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister), Jason Momoa (Khal Drogo) and the exceptional Pedro Pascal (Oberyn Martell).

Added note: This slide-lecture features GOT's costume designer and the research, design process, and constraints that go into costume design.

The above post was written by 
 our monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

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