The Uncanny Valley of Television: "Game of Thrones" - "The Laws of Gods and Men"
Welcome to the book readers’ edition of recapping Game of Thrones! As we established last week, if you haven’t read all of the books (yes, all the way through A Dance of Dragons, it’s been just shy of three years on that count, so it’s fully in play) kindly either depart gracefully or accept that there will be spoilers in what follows.
Hey forty minutes of filler followed by ten minutes of really good television. This show is getting more like the books every week.
We begin with the Great Colossus of Braavos, which sadly is missing most of his sword. I do sort of like where they’ve gone with the Iron Bank, bringing them more to the forefront of the narrative instead of essentially staying in the background. In watching the show from the beginning, they always felt like a subtle but important player, whereas that didn’t really feel apparent to me in reading the books several times until they’re sort of more up front and center in the later volumes.
On the other hand, the show has been quite insistent about making Stannis seem like a really good candidate for being a good ruler, which baffles the book reader in me. All the way through five volumes, I have never in reading the books taken Stannis even remotely seriously as being a potentially good king. I think the books go to great lengths to demonstrate that Stannis is an absolutely atrocious ruler that would do no one any good as sovereign. When Jon turned down Winterfell from Stannis, I half jokingly interpreted it in terms of being a terrible idea to ally with Stannis for any reason.
But the fact that he’s still alive after all of these books, and now the show is setting him up in a far more favorable light makes me hesitant. Either they realized they had to make him more sympathetic, or GRRM really does intend Stannis to be a serious candidate for king, which just seems depressing.
And then we stop in with our other side plots in order to burn time before the trial. Dany is discovering that ruling is like wicked hard, yo. It’s sort of funny that it’s in the wake of the Iron Bank scene that we see Dany tossing out money to buy off the peasants whose sheep are getting munched by dragons. Poor Dany. I’d like to ask her if she realizes that the only thing more boring than her having to deal with hundreds of supplicants is having to watch her deal with them.
Next up we get an utterly superfluous set piece to have the Iron Born try to save Theon. Nevermind that the Iron Born would not try to save Theon as they’re written in the books, but even just taking the show as it is, what is the point of any of this? It’s getting deep into the use of tertiary characters to create action sequences that don’t actually move any plot along. Everything at the end of that sequence is exactly the same as it was at the beginning. But it knocked ten minutes off the clock, so I guess bully on them.
Finally, we come to the trial, which is a microcosm for everything right and everything wrong with the show. It gets the broad picture right, undoubtedly. And Tyrion’s rage and monologue were wonderfully done. But the details are simply wrong, removed or changed despite being better than what was on screen. Where’s “giant of Lannister”? Where’s the deal with Oberyn in advance? And I’m not going to bother ranting again about having Tyrion having feelings like this for Shae. In the book, Tyrion demanded trial for combat after Oberyn tells him he’ll represent him in order to fight the Mountain. Tyrion does not lose his head at the trial, he listens to Shae, rolls his eyes, twists up cold inside over the mocking laughter over “giant of Lannister” and then decides to roll the dice on combat because win or lose the kingdom will be ripped apart.
Switching it so that Tyrion gets pissed and makes the episode-ending demand might make for good television, but it shits on who Tyrion is as a character in the books. He doesn’t demand that combat out of rage, he does it as a goddamned chess move. Taking Tyrion’s thinking three steps ahead out of the story and replacing it with an angry outburst doesn’t seem like much, and it is dramatic on the screen, but it is in my eyes an objectively worse way to write that scene and character.
The problem I’m having with this show is somewhat akin to the uncanny valley. As animation (or a picture, or a robot, or what have you) looks more human it gets more appealing to our senses, right up until the point just before perfection, in which the simulacrum drops off into something monstrous. It looks almost human, but falls just short in ways that make it seem terribly and disgustingly off.
That captures my reaction to the show for most of this season. It looks almost like the books, and many of the departures that irk me so are very minor when laid out in print. The narrative is getting the broad strokes right but screwing up the details so as to make the entire exercise infuriating. If the show was less close to the books it would be less of a problem, but since it hews so closely to it, those small flaws end up magnifying the problems rather than papering them over.
Game of Thrones is not even remotely a bad show on an objective level, but I am coming to dislike it far more than I do much worse shows.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.