Weekly Download Vol. III No. 32

The Rains of Castamere by The National (6.6) I had planned on waiting for the season finale to extol Game of Thrones. But putting a track by one of my favorite bands over the credits of season two’s penultimate episode (and easily the best hour of TV I’ve watched this year) has motivated me early to write about the best show on television. I said it.  Game of Thrones is the best show on television.  It’s better than the extraordinary Mad Men whose subtle brilliance is so subtle that at times I have to read two or three critical responses to a given episode to understand how subtly brilliant it was and to ensure I don’t sound like a fool when I’m subtly explaining its brillance to wife.  And maybe (just maybe) better than Breaking Bad, which I shall extol later.

Let me start that, historically, I have hated this shit. I guess it’s called “fantasy,” which only makes me hate it more.   I’ve much preferred the contemporary realism found in The Wire, The Sopranos, and Friday Night Lights, the historical fiction of Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, and even the modern day mind fuck (N.B. Potential Band Name) of Six Feet Under.  But the castles and the swords and the magic spells and the dragons?  I’ll pass. And if you saw any previews for the first season of GoT, that’s exactly what you

Poor Ned

thought you were getting.

So despite the high acclaim the books received (N.B. from those Birkenstocked dorks that read that crap), there wasn’t much chance I would devote any of my limited television time to GoT as it premiered.  However, because two of the TV blogs I read seriously fellated it, during the winter lull, after wife and I had watched an episode of Friday Night Lights off of DVD, I relented and decided to try out GoT on HBO on Demand.

I was hooked after 45 minutes.  Wow.  First off, it’s fucking beautiful.  The cinematography alone is enough to watch.  There hasn’t been anything this cinematic on TV since…..I don’t know, maybe ever.

However, only film students watch something for its cinematography and I’m not one. So the story you’re telling has to engross me, and you have to make me care about the characters.  There is much going on in GoT and it still manages to do both.  Once it settles in, there are at least four different story lines moving at one time filled with a host of characters you immediately love, empathize with, and outright hate only to have your opinions of them change throughout the season.  These seemingly unrelated stories acted by a massive cast have the potential to be a catastrophe as each is a plate for the showrunners, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, to keep spinning.  (N.B. “Showrunners” is, I believe, a relatively new term for the creative engines behind modern (post 2000) long format television.  Showrunners control the show, even while often farming out both writing and directing specific episodes.  My guess is that David Chase (Sopranos) was the first really modern “showrunner.”)  GoT’s showrunners do this expertly and without bogging you down with long segments of maybe unnecessary backstory you might need if you were (like I was) completely unfamiliar with the books.

I won’t get far into the narrative, but it’s pretty much what you might expect from something titled “Game of Thrones” and starring Sean Bean as hopelessly noble, Ned Stark in the above picture.  Power, loyalty, nobility, sex, betrayal, money, and violence.

But its brilliance to me (as indicated by what you didn’t find in the list closing the previous paragraph) was leaving the entire first season (10 hours) completely free of mythical gobble-di-gook and instead filling it with a human/political drama of the highest order replete with solid HBO levels of T’n’A and violence.  Part of me says this was done to entice skeptical assholes, like me who, as stated before, prolly wouldn’t watch something that leaned heavily on that crap.  But after reading the book on which the first season is based, I think it was an intentional decision by the author, George R.R. Martin, indicating that the characters believe their story takes place in a world having “moved past” all that and they live in more “modern” times.  My guess is they’re prolly wrong.

(I.Y.I. Regarding the books: I once thought that Stephen King’s Dark Tower was the American Lord of the Rings.  Although both are vulgar, epic, and morally ambiguous in that uniquely American way, I was wrong. GoT (at least the first two books (N.B. and for what it’s worth, the actual title of the series is “A Song of Ice and Fire.” This is pretty dorky.  I prefer Game of Thrones.) has proven superior in almost every way (N.B. Where Martin will never touch King (and where he really can’t in a narrative like this) is King’s under appreciated penchant to weave American popular culture into the very heart of his stories.  But I predict that Martin, a Bayonne, New Jersey son of a longshoreman, will have, by its conclusion, written something every bit as epic as Lord of the Rings, penned by the Oxford educated Tolkein (N.B. J. R.R. Tolkein, George R. R. Martin hmmmmm), and as far as I’m concerned better.  (And ladies (not to make sexist assumptions about what women like v. what men like), even wife is assaulting the books in her scorched earth manner which ensures she’ll be through all 5,000 paperback (and lord knows how many iBook) pages by the end of the summer.)  So if you have plans to hit the beach, I suggest you lug one of Martin’s door stops with you.  You won’t be dissappointed especially if you are able watch any of the first season before hand.)

I’m fully immersed in it right now, so I could write about it forever.  But I won’t.  I’ll just bullet point a couple of notes for the skeptics (because I know you’re out there, because I was one).

  • At its core, after you strip the blood and the tits and swords, the story is Martin’s long (damn long) rumination on where power resides.  He sets this forth brilliantly in riddle: A common man with a sword walks into a tavern and meets a king, a wealthy man, and a priest.  Each implore him to kill the other two.  Who lives?  I don’t know and I don’t think Martin does either, yet.  But there are characters in GoT representing each aspect of this riddle, and Martin forces you to consider them all.
  • Notes on Tyrion Lanister/Peter Dinklage. (1) The post Sopranos world of modern television (more on this later, but that is the dividing line.  The Sopranos changed the game) has produced some of the most fascinating characters in the history of storytelling (which I will also rank later).  I’m telling you, Tyrion Lanister, The Imp, the half-man, the dwarf, stacks up with any of them.  He is, by far, the most fascinating character on show and maybe on TV right now.  Watch it, and you’ll understand.  I just hope he lives. (2) the characters of GoT are decicedly less PC in how they refer to poor Tyrion.  I might have once called him a midget, but now that I’m no longer scared of them (in the general sense and mostly because of Dinklange) I’ll use the decidely more PC, “little person.”  Of course, that makes him more fascinating.  Dinklage won an Emmy in 2011 for best supporting actor for the first season, and he should do it again for 2012.  But unless Bryan Cranston/Walter White does something remarkable (which he’s capable) in the final season of Breaking Bad, I say the Imp should win the whole thing.
  • Finally, the WD, Rains of Castamere, is kinda the Battle Hymn of Republic for the GoT world.  While not fantastic, Matt Berringer’s evokative bass does it justice and frankly it’s far cooler than the pages and pages of boring ass songs Tolkein littered through all three Lord of the books (none of which were performed by The National).

OK, that’s it. Watch this show, from the begininng. Don’t spoil it by watching the season 2 finale with me on Sunday.

Enjoy.

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