White as Snow: In defense of a beau bastard, the closest thing to a hero in the Game of Thrones universe, with a little help from Jack White
While I would’ve preferred it if the series had ended with a nod to The Departed, only in this case, Daario Naharis sneaking into Jon Snow’s tent beyond the Wall (oh, heads up: there will be spoilers in this piece) and, after a careful look-over, clearly informing the audience of his contempt for this wanna-be Wildling, proceeded to cooly dispatch him with Wahlbergian aplomb, thus avenging Snow’s murder of Daenerys Targaryen, Naharis’s queen and dearly beloved.
I could get into all the permutations and knock-on effects and plot points that led to what quickly became regarded as a less-than-satisfactory finish to Game of Thrones, which is possibly the biggest TV show in history, but those have been argued so exhaustively since mid-May that it just doesn’t seem worth it. Plus, that particular cloud of noise has pretty much dissipated by this point; so, y’know, search them at your time-wasting leisure.
The way Game of Thrones ended didn’t bother me all that much. I was pretty much over it by that point, anyway. My rooting interest had piqued in seasons three and four—fond memories of awaiting each episode with bated breath, kind of like how I remembered feeling ahead of film and book premieres and the upcoming concerts of my youth. Hours spent poring over information to be best prepared for it. Preoccupation, for weeks on end.
But with age came the realization that what had once seemed so important slowly gets sanded away. And, much like a line I’ll always remember in a later Harry Potter book, about how Harry and Ron and Hermione began to grow apart, bit by near-unnoticeable bit, and how much that upset me at the time—that you might grow distanced from your friends of your youth, that relationships might change with time and commitments—I bah-bah, bah-ba’d and realized it was merely part of the Sound of Settling.
It was poignant, for me, that this series coincided with the close of an important part of my youth. And that I was OK with it.
The dwindling of my once-feverish interest coincided with a growing fascination with the stan-ifestation of what has, to my mind, become one of the more troubling components that has barnacle’d itself to popular culture—largely thanks to the advent of social media. Viewers or fans or these self-proclaimed stalker-fans/stans, of a certain show or film or series, come to believe they possess the power to force certain creative decisions simply because of their adherence to it. It as as if their dedication alchemized into a certain form of currency. So when Game of Thrones ends in a manner they deem unsuitable, they alight to the Internet, and create petitions for a do-over with a more acceptable plot point in mind. This really happened.
Here is where I get conflicted. I’ve watched cultural critics get taken to task for doing their jobs of…taking creative works to task. The artist slated in the press or on the net rightly (to my mind) crying foul, noting that while this critic has the power to affect the artist’s well-being, by directing foot traffic to or from the creation, the critic by and large risks nothing in the exchange. There is no reverse channel whereupon the artist can punch holes in the critic’s coffers. Maybe a boycott of a publication, but advertisers seem strangely immune to that variety of pressure.
The alternative, of course, would be almost as obnoxious—a society in which everything created is relentlessly cheered, regardless of its quality. Permanent manifestation of the participant award theory: show up and get a prize. Everyone is equal, thus everything made by everyone is of the exact same quality. Thankfully, from the time we are young, learning to read, or watching films, or witnessing whatever type of performance, we learn how to sift through the good and the bad. What has become strange, now, is how our opinion of our discernment has grown so bloated that we can now tell an artist to perform a do-over. This is not constructive criticism from a trusted colleague before release. This is egotism run amok among viewers. Eek.
This is where I begin to get invested, and, those synapses long out of use finally begin firing, I begin to feel again and I find that I am upset at the state of where we are. Everything is about creating a consensus, but where does that jive with the artist-as-outsider, willing to push a craft forward through sheer contrarian nature.
The artist should feel free to create without outside interference souring the final product. Yes, there is always the matter of making a living, and any artist has to juggle the original vision with the eventual reception. Now, though, they seem hopelessly intermixed, the former clouding the latter in a really disgusting mist. I lose just a little more hope for art going forward.
This is supposed to be the golden age of television, but like so much else in entertainment it risks becoming lost in the ocean of technological noise. Then there’s this strange phenomenon emanating from fans—now, not only do you feel the need to disagree with the direction of a particular piece of work; you feel you have the right to tell the creators how you would have done it better. And then create a petition to actually try and impose your will upon them. I believe in the right of the person as an individual; but watch a collective form, and I’m quickly reminded of a line from a political campaign manager: The masses are asses.
All this consensus, applied to the arts, makes me fear that everything will begin to seem…similar. As if everything good and interesting and the least bit fun would get sanded down until it appealed to the widest possible audience; the farthest market reach! What would happen to the risks, the shots in the dark that no one saw catching on, filled with images so striking and themese at-times-so-unsettling they keep you in a state of contemplation as you walk, or cycle, or ride, or drive home from the first viewing. During which time you come to the only possible conclusion to possibly alleviate this mind-fuck: I need to see that again.
But what will happen when those instances get rarer and rarer. When it’s replaced by continual exposure to the visual bombardment favored by blockbusters, or arena shows, or TV commercials, that assaultive state burrowing into you. Everything a blur to a propulsive backbeat. Nothing sticking, in the end. Check that. Maybe a meme.
I find myself thinking of a San Francisco premiere of T2: Trainspotting. During a Q & A the film’s director, Danny Boyle, revealed that in production, Sony, which was bankrolling the endeavor, assembled an audience and asked those in attendance what three things they’d like to see in the upcoming film. These three things were then quickly added into the mix, no worry about whether they might square-peg into the circle of Boyle’s vision. One was a simple nostalgia kick from the first film, a character making a cameo in the sequel which served no real purpose other than tickling that nostalgic bone we are in great danger of rubbing raw. Which is all fine and good, I guess. What is film if not a collaboration, a compromise between art and commerce. But this paint-by-numbers approach, in which purse strings pull every string, points to that terribly dystopian future in which all creative endeavors—at least those which can find any kind of financial backing—will all begin to look, and feel, exactly the same.
Back to Game of Thrones, in which many of these things seemed to come to a head by the show’s end, in a fitting encapsulation of the way this show captured the hearts and minds of much of the world. I am struck, when I think of the journey of that aforementioned character, Jon Snow, who in many ways underwent a journey that mirrored much of these problems. By series end he had grown from a lad into a man, having come out the other end still staunchly resolute in his sense of honor and duty. Kept character.
This was anathema to the universe he found himself in, much as we’d seen with his father-cough-cough-uncle (I said there’d be spoilers), Ned Stark. Here was a realm riddled with problems, muddy like the Middle Ages, in which characters were a product of that morally questionable environment. That was understandable; what was strange was to watch these morally questionable and oft-times outright corrupt characters be celebrated by the viewing masses, watching from a culture obsessed with cleanliness of character.
Explosions of sadism, understandable perhaps by the villain, a bit stranger when employed by a hero, were cheered. Retributive justice often seems frowned upon in our era; I guess this is one more area where fantasy allows us to express our deepest-held wishes.
The notion that arose from this fetid realm was simple: the only way to survive was to not be too good. It was strange how this went over with a populace that makes I can’t even displays in which we bemoan the widely held perception that we are awash in a morally corrupt politics. This is why, each election season, we witness the celebration of the pure soul taking on the yoke of politics, that ignominious profession. Our hero or heroine is portrayed as sifting through that murky wade after emerging from the sea, pure, released from the form of a shell. We allow politicians to play that role of an innocent, catering to our better natures while knowing all the while the second they get to Washington the system will keep greasing exactly the way it wants to.
We demand equality, bemoaning billionaires and railing against rampant greed while simultaneously sifting through endless photos of the latest styles from a celebrity ball or awards show. Or tweeting about the latest bit of celebrity gossip. Ostentatious displays of wealth are either decried, or given the resounding assent of YASSSSSS, simply depending upon how the viewer feels about the subject.
If there has ever been a state where we could learn from the (many) lessons of the twentieth century, it is now. But all we seem to care about is branding those we disagree with Hitler. Of destroying whatever it is we find ourselves opposed to. Which is just recycling the bogeyman theme, tale as old as time. I am forcibly reminded of a passage from Chantal Delsol’s book Unlearned Lessons of the 20th Century:
The Czech dissidents of Charter 77, led by Jan Patocka, justified their fight against the Soviet regime less as a call for rights that had been trampled underfoot than as a demand for personal responsibility. Where does the pervasive injustice in communist society come from? It could never originate in the “system” alone, for even if the system is perverse, this does not necessarily mean that its victims are innocent. The line between good and evil does not run between mistreated subjects and the partisans who mistreat them; it runs through each one of them. The primary concern of the dissidents was therefore not to overthrow the power structure and replace the tyrants with their victims. It was rather to figure out what could be done to prevent today’s victims from becoming tomorrow’s tyrants, should they come to power. Their concern was not to take revenge on history, but to put an end to the Manichaean logic that the communist era had compounded.
I find something inherently trustworthy about a person who critiques power while being perfectly content without ever wielding it. Who, if he finds himself taking upon that particular yoke, commanding or leading or whatever, does everything to do the job that needs doing, whereupon the mantle of “leader” can be taken off once its done.
The problem: this person is often a fictional creation. Or one who, in a fictional arena, undergoes the age-old journey of acquiring power and allowing it to corrupt Corleone-ly. This is one of the things I found most unsettling in that first season of Game of Thrones, in which Ned Stark—the main character to that point—was offed just before season’s end. It was one of those you simply don’t do that twists that have begun to pervade television and film.
I wasn’t so much upset with the decision to kill Ned Stark, as I was with the reasoning behind it. That if he had been just a little more corrupt, or willing to grease the wheels of the system, he might have lived. It was something I remembered from Ridley Scott’s epic Kingdom of Heaven, in which the main character, Balian, is offered the opportunity to have his main rival for the throne of Jerusalem killed, whereupon he would take the mantle of leader of Jerusalem and marry the Baron’s widow. Balian’s decision to abstain baffles his contemporaries. Why not do a little evil in the service of a greater good?
I caught myself quite quickly, as I went for a run after the series finale two weeks ago Sunday, fulminating different ways I thought it could, or should, have ended. Then I saw that petition go live and I realized what an absolute tool I was being. I went with the plot line of this show, knowing that I had every right to critique it. What I did not have was the right to change it. That’s your right when you find it within yourself to make your own show. Or write your own book, and craft the characters and the plot lines more to your liking.
It turns out that most of the waking world does not share my cool indifference toward Game of Thrones’ end. Throughout the entire final season, which stretched six episodes over a month and a half’s worth of Sundays, there were rumblings of discontent. People were poised, daggers in hand, to rip the hearts out of the creative minds behind this final season. If it didn’t adhere to their personal vision for the show, then, well, it wasn’t worth watching.
By the time the series and show finale rolled ‘round, I was ready for it to be over. I stumbled home on that fateful Sunday and tuned in. The show was pretty good; there was a palpable sense of foreboding throughout, and though it wasn’t what I would have preferred, perhaps, I went for a walk afterwards, came home, and was like, “All right.” Enough. I prepared to get on with my life like a normal, functioning human being.
But Game of Thrones was a phenomenon. This thing had blown out of control. There were gaudy premieres and official social media accounts actively encouraging fans to stan to their heart’s content. Which is only natural, but when I’d see Elizabeth Warren YASSSS GIRL-ing Daenerys, well, it’s just weird. (This was before Daenerys turned homicidal maniac; Warren didn’t post too much about her heroine after that plot twist.) In the end, it was just another politician trying to appear ‘hip’.
What I would have liked was a possible experiment: what if the internet gods (cough cough our Silicon Valley overlords) had made it impossible to post anything Game of Thrones-related for the duration of the final season and for a few weeks’ worth thereafter. Really give people the time they need to cool off and reflect before penning some response.
Because, in the end, what do we get out of a knee-jerk reaction? A brief upsurge in attention, perhaps. Maybe you’ll go viral. The next morning, the attention will dwindle, and you’ve got to get on with your life. What’s worrisome is if you spend it chasing that next synthetic high.
One more memory, in this case an interview with Jack White, embedded below. White has made a habit of employing Yondr at his rock shows to render them phone-free. No more video recording, no more eyes glued to screens, tapping buttons to take pictures while losing the chance to have a memory. Or, y’know, an actual experience.
After one of these phone-less shows, White asked the photographer he’d enlisted to document the occasion how many people had tweeted about the experience. A grand total of FIVE, he was told. Couple that with the fact that there has been next to no outrage about the prospect of a phone-less experience. I’m reminded of the end of Her: when the operating systems leave, human beings, seen moments before fumbling about as though in a daze, eyes cast downward, suddenly begin talking and interacting with each other. You were left feeling confident that they’ll find a way forward. Adaptable species.
This was five years ago. Now, we have more powerful cameras in our phones. Better battery life. Great. For me, the lesson White put forth pointed to something quite troubling. Our consumerism has reached the stage where it has infiltrated our response to art and clouded our perception of it. It is not enough to appreciate it, we must ram ourselves into it as if it owed us something. We have to suck the marrow from its bones in order to prop up our paper-thin senses of self worth. Live-stream ourselves at a rock show. Post a video about it to Instagram. Will we watch it later? Of course not. But our friends will know we were there. And they’ll be…jealous, I guess. And that makes us feel good.
All this will have been forgotten by morning. So we roll out of bed, check our phones, and prepare to do it all over again.