Game of Thrones and the trouble with brutality
Spoilers for the episode “The Mountain and the Viper” ahead.
Watching Oberyn Martell dance victoriously around a hamstrung Gregor Clegane last night, I had no doubts about the outcome. This is Game of Thrones. I know better than to be optimistic about this. And besides, there are two episodes to go: the finale would have far more juice to work with if Tyrion was facing execution than if he once again was saved via trial by combat.
No, with all of Oberyn’s bluster and demands for full, unmitigated justice, I fully expected the Mountain to spring up and strike him down. I didn’t expect said strike to be perhaps the most gruesome thing I’ve ever witnessed in fictional media.
And when Oberyn’s head had been reduced to salsa in the Mountain’s hands, I did feel sick. I know I wasn’t alone in that, and I know that that was probably the show’s intention. But the sickness was a visceral reaction to something disgusting. There’s nothing mutually exclusive between the grotesque and good drama. I’ve seen more than my share of stomach-churning cinematic violence. The point is, once you down some Pepto and settle your stomach, good drama demands that something else remain behind, lest the scene be little more than an side show act.
That feeling for me wasn’t the surprise at the narrative boldness that I felt when Ned Stark died, or the awe at the sheer audacity of the Red Wedding. It was weariness.
Grantland TV critic Andy Greenwald summed it up nicely in his review of last night’s episode: “I am growing slightly weary of being taught the same merciless lesson again and again.”
That lesson is, of course, that there are no happy endings. Only constant fighting for survival and swift, brutal death for those who lose that fight.
I’m not giving up on Game of Thrones by any means. I’m looking forward to the last two episodes of the season. But I’m also increasingly weary of the idea that nihilism and cynicism are substitutes for good storytelling.
Last night, in my upset haze I posted “At this point, a story that ended with everyone making out on horseback would be the plot twist of the century.” Greenwald said more or less the same thing in his review: “At this point, the most radical thing Game of Thrones could do is to make the audience exhale in relief.”
Game of Thrones needn’t turn down the body count meter to work. Moments of abject misery can make for a dramatically satisfying conclusion to a plot, but you have to work for it. The Red Wedding was a spectacular moment of TV because there was an inevitability to it, a sense all season long that Robb Stark was a prone to fatal foibles as his father. It was, like Ned Starks execution, the culmination of a season’s worth of miscalculations. The death of Oberyn Martell was a misstep the like of which the show has made a few times this season, mistaking wallowing in misery for storytelling nuance. Ramsey Snow’s appearances, rife with torture and misery, have regularly brought the show’s storytelling momentum to a screeching halt. A moment like Karl Tanner’s astonishing explosion of verbal venom (don’t watch that around the kids) was salvaged by the ferocity of Burn Gorman’s performance. The spotlight shone on him so intensely that it almost cauterized the whole sequence, one that risked being a 5-minute detour into a cesspool just to remind us where the sewage goes. And then you have a moment like Jaime’s rape of Cersei, which was horrific, tone deaf and indefensible.
Game of Thrones works best when all the machinations of the story lead to unpredictable but satisfying conclusions. Whether a conclusion is happy or miserable, the key is that the story has to earn it. Misery for the sake of it becomes as predictable as happily-ever-after. And a few too many times now, Game of Thrones has shoved shoved grotesque meals into my face, and they’re starting to taste undercooked.