To paraphrase Warming Glow, the honeymoon is over between Game of Thrones and TV critics.
After nearly a year and a half of what seemed like unanimous support and adoration for HBO’s adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series, many are beginning to wonder if the show isn’t too gratuitous.
Last week’s episode, Garden of Bones, sparked this dicussion, but ironically the problem was not with the scene where Joffrey forces one prostitute, at crossbow-point, to perform some kind of American Psycho/Se7en-style sexual mutilation of another, but rather a torture scene in which a giant rat is put into a bucket, strapped to the victim’s chest and then the bucket is lit on fire — causing the rat to try to escape out of a hole of its own creation.
For anyone who’s read the books, this was definitely a massive improvement on the otherwise silly torture artist who finds himself on Arya’s revenge shit list. In the book, “The Tickler” is just that — he tickles people until they wet themselves and/or find themselves in gasping pain. Regardless of how awful that sounds to you, it’s a little hard to convey the menace and horror of a grown man tickling people into mental and physical anguish on screen. It was hard enough on the page.
This show has made a lot of good decisions with regard to amping up horror or gore or sexual abuse to avoid its being titillating or entertaining. One of the only things that critics found to complain about last season was the original honeymoon rape between Drogo and Dany, and yet the book called for Dany to “be into it” halfway through. The show made a good, albeit harder-to-watch, decision regarding the likelihood that a 13-year-old girl would find herself turned on halfway through a forced sexual encounter.
But frankly I think that opposition against this scene is proof that a lot of critics are almost trying to find something to be upset about. Even if Season 2 is more gruesome than last year — and it’s not — the whole point is that we’re now out of the frying pan and into the fire. “Winter is coming” isn’t some idle threat that the Northmen like to throw out for the hell of it — winter is coming, war is already happening and everything is going to get much, much worse for everyone.
Instead, I think critics are griping about the gore or nudity in the show to avoid the more obvious problem: the season so far has been underwhelming. And it’s a lot easier to clutch your pearls over violence than to raise the ire of fanboys and girls alike to suggest that — blood and guts and breasts aside — it hasn’t been a very eventful handful of episodes.
This was always the trouble with bringing Martin’s admittedly uneven series to TV. A Game of Thrones was the quintessential first book in a series: we’re introduced to characters — some we immediately love, some we immediately hate. Lines are drawn, rules are explained and the world is roughly sketched out. A Clash of Kings, however, is arguably the most boring of the bunch, but also the most vital. In order for us to care about the Iron Throne and its many, many contenders, we do need almost an entire book (and now an entire season) to go through that list. Kings colors in the sketch, basically. Before things really get ugly, we have to stop and understand what this war is about, who’s involved and what’s at stake. And then, of course, all of the dominoes are perfectly lined up so that A Storm of Swords can come in and giddily knock them all down. There’s no satisfaction in knocking down a half-finished set-up.
With that said, I’m more than happy to deal with the slight dullness of the set-up. My problem with this season is the writing. The dialogue has been far too heavy-handed. The worst offender was the scene from the premiere in which Littlefinger subtly threatens Cersei and she gives him a lesson (through her guards) about power. In order to make a point that this show has made dozens of time (“Power is power”), they momentarily throw Littlefinger’s character under the bus. This is supposed to be a man who endures everything because he always knows his place and always knows how to play everyone around him. A man like this is not going to threaten a Queen Regent almost as unstable and irrational as her sociopath of a son (the King). There have been other instances of this — effectively treating the characters as machines of expository rhetoric who spew out phrases helpful for the audience but irrelevant to their characters, the scene or the story itself.
Sure, it’s a common writing technique, but it was a technique that this show was much better at avoiding last season.
This season isn’t more gory or exploitative than the last, and it is more boring (though I still argue that the boredom is necessary). Ultimately, however, I think the show’s current woes can be attributed to the writers feeling overwhelmed with the volume of source material and trying to find ways to convey Martin’s circular and repetitive writing into the show. Here’s a hint: don’t. The show is at its best when characters are interacting naturally with one-another and not when they’re giving the audience lessons in history, political science and human nature. Or, to put it another way: show, don’t tell.