One of the main purposes of this blog is “telexperimentation.” To that effect, it’s about watching new shows that are off my beaten path, really just to see what sticks. In that regard, starting with Game of Thrones was either a great idea or a terrible idea; jumping into a fantasy world in some distant-past version of the British Isles after two seasons of “sexposition” and killings was a bold move. I thought I would get a crash course in the lore, and that the third season premiere would be-action packed and fun and that at the end I would declaim from the rooftop, “I get it! I’m hooked!” To my disappointment, I found it stagnant and unremarkable.
Now, I am not a viewer who is drawn to the “epic” fantasy series. I often gravitate towards lower stakes, or to programs that address worldly issues. However, I have just as much fun watching The Lord of the Rings or even The Hobbit as anyone else with a soul; I play a game with my sister that combines the zodiac with Harry Potter house sorting (yeah, you’re missing out).
Ready to embrace a new world, I sat down to watch “Valar Dohaeris” (which translates to “all men must serve” in the imagined language of the source material) prepared to see LOTR meets The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe meets porn—fictional ancient royals are fighting over the kingdom, there are supernatural creatures involved, and winter is oppressive—but instead I saw all of that wrapped in pretentious dullness.
Perhaps the least enthralling aesthetic traits of the show were its color scheme and it’s aural tone. This may be a trend in contemporary fantasy cinema. Towards the end of the Harry Potter film series, I noticed that each film became darker, greyer and grimmer in color; the pretense, it seemed, was that the color palette emphasized the “dark” themes of the later books. The effect is nullifying. It signifies a desire to make a fun, fantasy series into a serious, grim, piece (it’s not just fantasy, after all, but HBO).
In the premiere no one spoke above a whisper or a dramatic mumble; the tone was so static that I actually found it hard to pay attention (it reminded me of another highly-touted HBO drama, Treme). The exception was the scene between the stern man and Peter Dinklage’s character. He raises his voice to inform Dinklage that he is no heir to the throne, and that he’s “ill-formed” and killed his mother in childbirth.
I suspect Dinklage’s character is a nod to Richard III, as one of the series’ main historical influences is the English War of the Roses. The show seems to rely on vague historical allusions and a general acceptance that the GoT battles took place somewhere, some time—just not specifically anywhere at any point.
Whether the historical tale told is accurate or meaningful seems to be a secondary concern. As a new viewer, I heard the show’s thesis ring out when Sansa and her handmaiden are playing a shipwatching game in which they imagine the purpose and destination of each ship. When the handmaiden falls back on factual knowledge, Sansa scolds her: “the truth is either terrible or boring.”
This speaks to the enduring popularity of the fantasy genre throughout the history of storytelling. Tolkien wrote his series during WWII, and Game of Thrones has prompted a resurgence of the epic during a time of economic unrest. As Sansa implies, fantasies are often more exciting than the mundane, and real life comes with baggage that most of us would like to forget. Whether or not you approve of this sort of escapism depends on your artistic point of view; you could call fantasy the pinnacle of human imagination and world-building, or you could call it bread and circus.
Either way, the most exciting part of the show was toward the end when a little demon girl jumped off the boardwalk and utterly disappeared. I woke up from my stupor, hoping to find out who she was and where she was going. Her identity was not revealed, but the moment gave me a taste of the kind of fantasy I wanted to see—mythical creatures, fully fleshed and otherworldy.
Otherwise, the experience of watching Game of Thrones as a foreigner was sort of like watching a sport game, the rules of which you don’t know. It’s fun to watch them throw the ball around, and it’s funny when your friends get heated over team loyalties, but mostly you just feel like an alien.