June 24, 2015

Rocked by “Game of Thrones” — The Fine Art of Going to Extremes

DVD revTake a walk with me down by Avalon… — Sir Van Morrison, from “Summertime in England”

According to the June 17 New York Times, the Season Five finale of Game of Thrones drew eight million viewers, making it most watched HBO series ever. The death of one of the major characters was front page news the day after, at least in certain New York tabloids. Also in the news were reports that longtime viewers of the show like Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill had had enough. “Ok, I’m done,” she tweeted. “Gratuitous rape scene disgusting and unacceptable. It was a rocky ride that just ended.”

It’s a rocky ride, for sure. But I’d tweak the phrasing. This ride isn’t just rocky, it rocks. How hard and relentlessly it rocks its audience reminds me of seeing Cream live in a small venue, amps up all the way, Ginger Baker satantically attacking the drums, Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce riding out on “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” while “our naked ears were tortured” and you could say the same for the “naked eyes” of the audience assaulted by the scene that upset the senator. But we’re staying on board. We’ve been there before. To be stunned, shocked, repelled has been the name of the Game from day one. You can see for yourself in the home videos on YouTube of people reacting, hands over eyes, recoiling in horror, screaming, totally at the mercy of the Red Wedding sequence.

Enter Sir Van

So, how is it, speaking for my wife and myself, that at our advanced age we not only put up with but actually find pleasure in the dark world of Westeros where no one is safe and innocent children are sacrificed, burned alive by their own fathers? Is it that people who came of age in the rock and roll renaissance of the sixties are more receptive to a television series fraught with the outrages and excesses that have led others to jump ship?

I found one answer in the Arts section of Monday’s New York Times where Jon Pareles has the “newly knighted” Van Morrison taking “a song from way back when” and “living it anew” during a concert at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens. Two months short of his 70th birthday, Sir Van’s singing a song called “Magic Time” that begins “Don’t lose the wonder in your eyes” before a crowd of ecstatic fans shown in the picture at the top of the story, arms high, wrinkles in evidence along with glimpses of hair touched with white and grey. You know that many of those shown blissing out en masse lived through the wildness and wonder of the years of Woodstock and Altamont, “Helter-Skelter” and Manson when the airwaves were dominated by Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin, and magical albums like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. 

Somehow the titles Sir Paul and Sir Mick don’t signify much beyond the prestige of knighthood. Think of Sir Van, however, and you can see a knight on horseback riding through the gates into Arthur’s Court “down by Avalon”— or into the domain of the Iron Throne at King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. Over the years the limitless realm of rock has permitted Van Morrison to move freely through time and space and context, bringing Wordsworth, Blake and Coleridge together with Mahalia Jackson and Yeats and Lady Gregory singing and dancing in the summertime in England. Or else he’s taking us “up the mountainside/With fire in our hearts” walking “all the way to Tir Na Nog.”

And remember where Sir Van, also known as the Belfast Cowboy, is coming from. When asked why Northern Ireland was “the ultimate choice for the bulk of the shoot and The Game of Thrones base of operation,” co-creator David Benioff mentions “windswept hilltops, stony beaches, lush meadows, high cliffs, bucolic streams — we can shoot a day at any of these places and still sleep that night in Belfast.”

The Miller’s Tale

Another force from the rock renaissance evoking the world of Game of Thrones is Procol Harum in albums like Home from 1970 and the chart-topping 1967 single, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” where “As the Miller told his tale … her face, at first just ghostly,/Turned a whiter shade of pale.” Though the group’s out-there lyricist Keith Reid has denied consciously channeling Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, there’s no denying the “magic time” of myth and legend haunting that lyric and the songs on Home: “Light a candle up in kingdom come…A candle burning bright enough to tear the city down.” Or: “I beheld that flaming chariot and I saw the sacred bride,” or “God’s aloft, the winds are raging/God’s aloft, the winds are cold.” Or, given the revenge theme running through the Season Five finale, you have Gary Brooker belting out “Still There’ll Be More,” a deliriously jubilant serenade of unending vengeance: “I’ll waylay your daughter and kidnap your wife/I’ll savage her sexless and burn out her eyes/…You’ll cry out for mercy. Still there’ll be more!”

Drawing the Line 

The underlying issue in the blogosphere debate about Game of Thrones is where do you draw the line? Or where or when should the producers draw it? In fact, the secret of cable’s success, HBO in particular, has been to ignore the line networks have had to live on the other side of from the inception of television all the way back to Hollywood and the reign of the Hays Office and the Legion of Decency. Explaining why compressing Martin’s massive work into a feature film was impossible, David Benioff says that besides being forced to discard “dozens of subplots and scores of characters,” such a film “would almost certainly need a PG-13 rating. That means no sex, no blood, no profanity.” To which he added: “[Profanity] that!”

Those who claim to be abandoning Game of Thrones because of the violence and sex should consider the ultimate dramatist. When did Shakespeare draw the line? Even if you dismiss the crazed, cannibalistic bloodbath of Titus Andronicus as a parody of Marlowe or the work of another hand, what about, for a start, the Macbeths, and Goneril and Regan in King Lear, and the ultimate protagonist Hamlet (“my thoughts be bloody or nothing worth”), who skewers his true love’s father and when asked where the old man is, says “At supper…Not where he eats but is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet.”

Heroes and Villains

While Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf Hamlet of Game of Thrones, pictured in the graphic above and memorably played by Peter Dinklage, might not be a match for the Dane verbally, he has Shakespearean dimensions, as do most of the major characters. Interviewed in Inside HBO’s Game of Thrones (Chronicle Books 2012), Dinklage speaks of the way the show “crosses genres” and finds the characters “as vibrant and real” as anything he’s come across in “more traditional great fiction.” Lena Headley, who plays his deadly, diabolical sister Cersei, finds that the characters “never stop moving, growing, changing. No one ever remains what you think they are.”

Audience Awareness

Referring to the show’s source, George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, co-creator D.B. Weiss mentions always being “on the lookout for deep characters, a beautifully crafted and compelling story, passion, violence, intrigue, humanity, and all the ambiguities that come with a fully realized world … and you never find them all in the same place. Except we did. It was exhilarating and terrifying.”

Using terms like “exhilarating and terrifying,” Weiss already understands the dimensions of the challenge facing not merely the producers of the show but the audience. For one example, there’s the wedding night rape in Season Five that led Senator McCaskill, among others, to say “I’m done.” It’s important to mention that there’s an audience within the scene in the person of the man being forced to watch it; he and the victim were childhood friends. Well aware of the previous relationship, the husband says, “You’ve known her since she was a girl, now watch her become a woman.” The viewer doesn’t actually see the rape except as it’s reflected in the person standing helplessly by watching it. We know that he himself has been violated, and worse—beaten, tortured, emasculated, and dehumanized—by the perpetrator. We hear her cries but watching him watch, shaken, torn, sobbing, is where the rape is most vividly manifested. The act is as much a violation of the witness as it is of the victim. And there’s reason to believe that the scene was conceived with an awareness of what the audience to Game of Thrones has been going through. Remember those videos of horrified witnesses to the Red Wedding. They don’t want to see it, they hide their eyes, but they have to look.

Slapping Joffrey

For detestable characters, it’s hard to equal Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), the horrific brat who steals the throne and orders the beheading of Ned Stark (Sean Bean), the true hero of Season One. Thankfully, there’s a scene before Joffrey becomes king where his Uncle Tyrion gives him the slapping he more than deserves, a moment to be savored that has been posted on YouTube and extended to ten minutes by a viewer who appreciates Game of Throne’s rock and roll undercurrent. As Peter Dinklage unloads, again and again, the music playing is Led Zeppelin’s “Achilles Last Stand.”