Posts Tagged ‘Game of Thrones’
Note: Spoilers follow for the season finale of Westworld.
Over time, as a society, we’ve more or less figured out how we’re all supposed to deal with spoilers. When a movie first comes out, there’s a grace period in which most of us agree not to discuss certain aspects of the story, especially the ending. Usually, reviewers will confine their detailed observations to the first half of the film, which can be difficult for a critic who sees his or her obligation as that of a thoughtful commentator, rather than of a consumer advisor who simply points audiences in the right direction on opening weekend. If there’s a particularly striking development before the halfway mark, we usually avoid talking about that, too. (Over time, the definition of what constitutes a spoiler has expanded to the point where some fans apply it to any information about a film whatsoever, particularly for big franchise installments.) For six months or so, we remain discreet—and most movies, it’s worth noting, are forgotten long before we even get to that point. A movie with a major twist at the end may see that tacit agreement extended for years. Eventually, however, it becomes fair game. Sometimes it’s because a surprise has seeped gradually into the culture, so that a film like Citizen Kane or Psycho becomes all but defined by its secrets. In other cases, as with The Sixth Sense or Fight Club, it feels more like we’ve collectively decided that anyone who wants to see it has already gotten a chance, and now we can talk about it openly. And up until now, it’s a system that has worked pretty well.
But this approach no longer makes sense for a television show that is still on the air, at least if the case of Westworld is any indication. We’re not talking about spoilers, exactly, but about a certain kind of informed speculation. The idea that one of the plotlines on Westworld was actually an extended flashback first surfaced in discussions on communities like Reddit, was picked up by the commenters on the reviews on mainstream websites, led theorists to put together elaborate chronologies and videos to organize the evidence, and finally made its way into think pieces. Long before last night’s finale, it was clear that the theory had to be correct. The result didn’t exactly ruin my enjoyment, since it turned out to be just one thread in a satisfying piece of storytelling, but I’ll never know what it would have been like to have learned the truth along with Dolores, and I suspect that a lot of other viewers felt the same twinge of regret. (To be fair, the percentage of people who keep up with this sort of theorizing online probably amounts to a fraction of the show’s total viewership, and the majority of the audience experienced the reveal pretty much as the creators envisioned it.) There’s clearly no point in discouraging this kind of speculation entirely. But when a show plays fair, as Westworld did, it’s only a matter of time before somebody solves the mystery in advance. And because a plausible theory can spread so quickly through the hive mind, it makes us feel smarter, as individuals, than we really are, which compromises our reactions to what was a legitimately clever and resonant surprise.
Westworld isn’t the first show to be vulnerable to this kind of collective sleuthing: Game of Thrones has been subjected to it for years, especially when it comes to the parentage, status, and ultimate fate of a certain character who otherwise wouldn’t seem interesting enough to survive. In both cases, it’s because the show—or the underlying novels—provided logical clues along the way to prepare us, in the honorable fashion of all good storytelling. The trouble is that these rules were established at a time when most works of narrative were experienced in solitude. Even if one out of three viewers figured out the twist in The Usual Suspects before the movie was halfway done, it didn’t really affect the experience of the others in the theater, since we don’t tend to discuss the story in progress out loud. That was true of television, too, for most of the medium’s history. These days, however, many of us are essentially talking about these stories online while they’re still happening, so it isn’t surprising if the solutions can spread like a virus. I don’t blame the theorists, because this kind of speculation can be an absorbing game in its own right. But it’s so powerful that it needs to be separated from the general population. It requires a kind of self-policing, or quarantine, that has to become second nature to every viewer of this kind of show. Reviewers need to figure out how to deal with it, too. Otherwise, shows will lose the incentive to play fair, relying instead on blunter, more mechanical kinds of surprise. And this would be a real shame, because Westworld has assembled the pieces so effectively that I don’t doubt it will continue to do so in the future.
Watching the finale, I was curious to see how it would manage to explain the chronology of Dolores’s story without becoming hopelessly confusing, and it did a beautiful job, mostly by subordinating it to the larger questions of William’s fate, Dolores’s journey, and Ford’s master plan, which has taken thirty-five years to come to fruition. (In itself, this is a useful insight into storytelling: it’s easier for the audience to make a big conceptual leap when it feeds into an emotional arc that is already in progress, and if it’s treated as a means, not an end.) If anything, the reveal of the identity of Wyatt was even more powerful—although, oddly, the fact that everything has unfolded according to Ford’s design undermines the agency of the very robots that it was supposed to defend. It’s an emblem for why this excellent season remains one notch down from the level of a masterpiece, thanks to the need of its creators, like Ford, to maintain a tight level of control. Still, if it lasts for as long as I think it will, it may not even matter how much of it the Internet figured out on first viewing. For a television show, the lifespan of a spoiler seems to play in reverse: instead of a grace period followed by free discussion after enough time has passed, we get intense speculation while the show airs, giving way to silence once we’ve all moved on to the next big thing. If Westworld endures as a work of art, it will be seen just as it was intended by those who discover it much later, after the flurry of speculation has faded. I don’t know how long it will take before it can be seen again with fresh eyes. But thirty-five years seems about right.
Note: Major spoilers follow for the entire run of Westworld.
“The Adversary” is far from a bad hour of television, but it’s one of the weaker episodes of Westworld. We’re just past the halfway point of the season, which is when a show has to start focusing on its endgame, and in practice, this often means that we get an installment devoted to what showrunners call “laying pipe,” or setting up information that will pay off later on. There’s a lot of material being delivered to the viewer here, but it lacks some of the urgency of earlier installments, and on an emotional level, it’s more detached than usual. (The exception is gorgeous silent sequence that leans heavily on an orchestral version of Radiohead’s heartbreaking “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” a musical crutch that I’ll forgive because it’s so effective.) For the most part, though, it puts advancing the mystery ahead of spending time with the characters, and when we look back at the season as a whole, I have a feeling it will turn out to have been structurally necessary. I like all the intrigue surrounding the maze, the acts of industrial espionage in the park, and the enigmatic figure of Arnold—which are beginning to look as if they’re just different aspects of the same thing. But it’s all fairly standard for a series like this, and it isn’t the reason I keep watching. Westworld has so much going on, both for good and for bad, that its mystery box aspects seem less like the main attraction than like a convenient spine. And it means that the show sometimes has to take care of a few practical matters to prepare for the big finish.
What surprised me the most about the episode, though, was the reason I found it a little less compelling than usual. It was the absence of Dolores. She’s obviously an important figure—she’s the show’s nominal lead, no less—and her journey is central to the overall arc of the season. If you’d asked me if she was my favorite character, though, I would have said that she wasn’t: I get more pleasure out of our time with Bernard. But if you take her out of an episode entirely, something interesting happens. Westworld, like Game of Thrones, is an ensemble series that spends much of its time checking in on various groups of characters, and it means that you often won’t see important players at all, or for no more than a minute or two. And it’s only in their absences that you start to figure out who is truly essential. When Bernard was offscreen for most of last week, except for a brief conversation with Elsie, I was aware that I missed him, but it didn’t detract from the rest of the story. With Dolores gone, it’s as if the engine of the show has been removed. It’s surprising, because her scenes with William and Logan haven’t exactly jumped off the screen, and her storyline is the one area where the show seems to be stalling, because it’s clearly saving her big moments for closer to the end. But Dolores’s gradual movement toward consciousness is such a crucial thread that removing it leaves the show feeling a bit like Game of Thrones at its worst: a collection of scenes without a center. We aren’t supposed to identify with Dolores, exactly, but she’s the most dynamic character in sight, and her evolution is what gives the series its narrative thrust.
This is why I’m wary of the popular fan theory, which has been exhaustively discussed online, that the show is taking place in different timelines. The gist of the argument, in case you haven’t heard it, is that the scenes involving Dolores, William, and Logan are flashbacks that are occurring more than thirty years before the rest of the show, and that William is really a younger version of the Man in Black. Its proponents bolster their case using details like the two different versions of the Westworld park logo, the changing typeface on a can of condensed milk, and the fact that we never see William or Logan interacting with any of the other human characters. There’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, but nothing that can’t be explained away in isolation as a deliberate mislead, and I don’t think the conspiracy theorists will give up until William and the Man in Black meet face to face. It’s a clever reading, and it isn’t inconsistent with what we know about the past tactics of creator Jonathan Nolan. For all I know, it may turn out to be true. It’s certainly a better surprise than most shows have managed. But I hope it isn’t what’s really happening here—and for many of the same reasons that I gave above. Dolores’s story is the heart of the series, and placing her scenes with William three decades earlier makes nonsense of the show’s central conceit: that Dolores is slowly edging her way toward greater self-awareness because she’s been growing all this time. The flashback theory implies that she was already experiencing flashes of deeper consciousness almost from the beginning, which requires us to throw out most of what we know about her so far.
This isn’t always a bad thing, and some of the most effective twists in the history of storytelling have forced the audience to radically revise what it thinks it knows about the protagonist. But I think it would be a mistake here. It has the advantage of turning William, who has been kind of a bore, into a vastly more interesting figure, but only at the cost of making Dolores considerably less interesting—a puppet of the plot, rather than a character who can drive the narrative forward in her own right. It’s possible that this may turn out to be a commentary on her lack of agency as a robot: the series might be fooling us into reading more into Dolores than we should, just like William does, which would be an inspired trick indeed. But Dolores is such a load-bearing character that I’m worried that the show would lose more than it gained by the reveal. Her story may be nothing but a bridge that can be blown to smithereens as soon as the other characters have crossed safely to the other side, as James Joyce memorably put it. But I’m skeptical. As “The Adversary” demonstrates, when you remove Dolores from the equation, you end up with a show that provides memorable moments but little in the way of an overarching shape. (The scene in which Maeve blackmails Felix and Sylvester into making her more intelligent only highlights how much more intriguing Dolores’s organic discovery of her true nature has been.) The multiple timeline theory, as described, would remove the Dolores we know from the story forever. It would be a fantastic twist. But I’m not sure the show could survive it.
At last night’s presidential debate, when moderator Chris Wallace asked if he would accept the outcome of the election, Donald Trump replied: “I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?” It was an extraordinary moment that immediately dominated the headlines, and not just because it was an unprecedented repudiation of a crucial cornerstone of the democratic process. Trump’s statement—it seems inaccurate to call it a “gaffe,” since it clearly reflects his actual views—was perhaps the most damaging remark anyone could have made in that setting, and it reveals a curious degree of indifference, or incompetence, in a candidate who has long taken pride in his understanding of the media. It was a short, unforgettable sound bite that could instantly be brought to members of both parties for comment. And it wasn’t an arcane matter of policy or an irrelevant personal issue, but an instantly graspable attack on assumptions shared by every democratically elected official in America, and presumably by the vast majority of voters. Even if Trump had won the rest of the debate, which he didn’t, those six words would have erased whatever gains he might have made. Not only was it politically and philosophically indefensible, but it was a ludicrous tactical mistake, an unforced error in response to a question that he and his advisors knew was going to be asked. As Julia Azari put it during the live chat on FiveThirtyEight: “The American presidency is not the latest Tana French novel—leaders can’t keep the people in suspense.”
But the phrase that he used tells us a lot about Trump. I’m speaking as someone who has devoted my fair share of thought to suspense itself: I’ve written a trilogy of thrillers and blogged here about the topic at length. When I think about the subject, I often start with what John Updike wrote in a review of Nabokov’s Glory, which is that it “never really awakens to its condition as a novel, its obligation to generate suspense.” What Updike meant is that stories are supposed to make us wonder about what’s going to happen next, and it’s that state of pleasurable anticipation that keeps us reading. It can be an end in itself, but it can also be a literary tool for sustaining the reader’s interest while the writer tackles other goals. As Kurt Vonnegut once said of plot, it isn’t necessarily an accurate representation of life, but a way to keep readers turning pages. Over time, the techniques of suspense have developed to the point where you can simulate it using purely mechanical tricks. If you watch enough reality television, you start to notice how the grammar of the editing repeats itself, whether you’re talking about Top Chef or Project Runway or Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. The delay before the judges deliver their decision, the closeups of the faces of the contestants, the way in which an editor pads out the moment by inserting cutaways between every word that Padma Lakshmi says—these are all practical tools that can give a routine stretch of footage the weight of the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial. You can rely on them when you can’t rely on the events of the show itself.
And the best trick of all is to have a host who keeps things moving whenever the contestants or guests start to drag. That’s where someone like Trump comes in. He’s an embarrassment, but he’s far from untalented, at least within the narrow range of competence in which he used to operate. When I spent a season watching The Celebrity Apprentice—my friend’s older sister was on it—I was struck by how little Trump had to do: he was only onscreen for a few minutes in each episode. But he was good at his job, and he was also the obedient instrument of his producers. He has approached the campaign with the same mindset, but with few of the resources that are at an actual reality show’s disposal. Trump’s strategy has been built around the idea that he doesn’t need to spend money on advertising or a ground game, as long as the media provides him with free coverage. It’s an interesting experiment, but there’s a limit to how effective it can be. In practice, Trump is less like the producer or the host than a contestant, which reduces him to acting like a reality star who wants to maximize his screen time: say alarming things, pick fights, act unpredictably, and generate the footage that the show needs, while never realizing that the incentives of the contestants and producers are fundamentally misaligned. (He should have just watched the first season of UnREAL.) When he says that he’ll keep us in suspense about accepting the results of the election, he’s just following the reality show playbook, which is to milk such climactic moments for all they’re worth.
Yet this approach has backfired, and television provides us with some important clues as to why. I once believed that the best analogy to Trump’s campaign was the rake gag made famous by The Simpsons. As producer Al Jean described it: “Sam Simon had a theory that if you repeat a joke too many times, it stops being funny, but if you keep on repeating it, it might get really funny.” Trump performed a rake gag in public for months. First we were offended when he made fun of John McCain’s military service; then he said so many offensive things that we became numb to it; and then it passed a tipping point, and we got really offended. I still think that’s true. But there’s an even better analogy from television, which is the practice of keeping the audience awake by killing off major characters without warning. As I’ve said here before, it’s a narrative trick that used to seem daring, but now it’s a form of laziness: it’s easier to deliver shocking death scenes than to tell interesting stories about the characters who are still alive. In Trump’s case, the victims are ideas, or key constituents of the electorate: minorities, immigrants, women. When Trump turned on Paul Ryan, it was the equivalent of one of those moments, like the Red Wedding on Game of Thrones, when you’re supposed to gasp and realize that nobody is safe. His attack on a basic principle of democracy might seem like more of the same, but there’s a difference. The strategy might work for a few seasons, but there comes a point at which the show cuts itself too deeply, and there aren’t any characters left that we care about. This is where Trump is now. And by telling us that he’s going to keep us in suspense, he may have just made the ending a lot less suspenseful.
“The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” Thomas Carlyle once wrote, and although this statement was criticized almost at once, it accurately captures the way many of us continue to think about historical events, both large and small. There’s something inherently appealing about the idea that certain exceptional personalities—Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon—can seize and turn the temper of their time, and we see it today in attempts to explain, say, the personal computing revolution though the life of someone like Steve Jobs. The alternate view, which was expressed forcefully by Herbert Spencer, is that history is the outcome of impersonal social and economic forces, in which a single man or woman can do little more than catalyze trends that are already there. If Napoleon had never lived, the theory goes, someone very much like him would have taken his place. It’s safe to say that any reasonable view of history has to take both theories into account: Napoleon was extraordinary in ways that can’t be fully explained by his environment, even if he was inseparably a part of it. But it’s also worth remembering that much of our fascination with such individuals arises from our craving for narrative structures, which demand a clear hero or villain. (The major exception, interestingly, is science fiction, in which the “protagonist” is often humanity as a whole. And the transition from the hard science fiction of the golden age to messianic stories like Dune, in which the great man reasserts himself with a vengeance, is a critical turning point in the genre’s development.)
You can see a similar divide in storytelling, too. One school of thought implicitly assumes that a story is a delivery system for great scenes, with the rest of the plot serving as a scaffold to enable a handful of awesome moments. Another approach sees a narrative as a series of small, carefully chosen details designed to create an emotional effect greater than the sum of its parts. When it comes to the former strategy, it’s hard to think of a better example than Game of Thrones, a television series that often seems to be marking time between high points: it can test a viewer’s patience, but to the extent that it works, it’s because it constantly promises a big payoff around the corner, and we can expect two or three transcendent set pieces per season. Mad Men took the opposite tack: it was made up of countless tiny but riveting choices that gained power from their cumulative impact. Like the theories of history I mentioned above, neither type of storytelling is necessarily correct or complete in itself, and you’ll find plenty of exceptions, even in works that seem to fall clearly into one category or the other. It certainly doesn’t mean that one kind of story is “better” than the other. But it provides a useful way to structure our thinking, especially when we consider how subtly one theory shades into the other in practice. The director Howard Hawks famously said that a good movie consisted of three great scenes and no bad scenes, which seems like a vote for the Game of Thrones model. Yet a great scene doesn’t exist in isolation, and the closer we look at stories that work, the more important those nonexistent “bad scenes” start to become.
I got to thinking about this last week, shortly after I completed the series about my alternative movie canon. Looking back at those posts, I noticed that I singled out three of these movies—The Night of the Hunter, The Limey, and Down with Love—for the sake of one memorable scene. But these scenes also depend in tangible ways on their surrounding material. The river sequence in The Night of the Hunter comes out of nowhere, but it’s also the culmination of a language of dreams that the rest of the movie has established. Terence Stamp’s unseen revenge in The Limey works only because we’ve been prepared for it by a slow buildup that lasts for more than twenty minutes. And Renée Zellweger’s confessional speech in Down with Love is striking largely because of how different it is from the movie around it: the rest of the film is relentlessly active, colorful, and noisy, and her long, unbroken take stands out for how emphatically it presses the pause button. None of the scenes would play as well out of context, and it’s easy to imagine a version of each movie in which they didn’t work at all. We remember them, but only because of the less showy creative decisions that have already been made. And at a time when movies seem more obsessed than ever with “trailer moments” that can be spliced into a highlight reel, it’s important to honor the kind of unobtrusive craft required to make a movie with no bad scenes. (A plot that consists of nothing but high points can be exhausting, and a good story both delivers on the obvious payoffs and maintains our interest in the scenes when nothing much seems to be happening.)
Not surprisingly, writers have spent a lot of time thinking about these issues, and it’s noteworthy that one of the most instructive examples comes from Leo Tolstoy. War and Peace is nothing less than an extended criticism of the great man theory of history: Tolstoy brings Napoleon onto the scene expressly to emphasize how insignificant he actually is, and the novel concludes with a lengthy epilogue in which the author lays out his objections to how history is normally understood. History, he argues, is a pattern that emerges from countless unobservable human actions, like the sum of infinitesimals in calculus, and because we can’t see the components in isolation, we have to content ourselves with figuring out the laws of their behavior in the aggregate. But of course, this also describes Tolstoy’s strategy as a writer: we remember the big set pieces in War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but they emerge from the diligent, seemingly impersonal collation of thousands of tiny details, recorded with what seems like a minimum of authorial interference. (As Victor Shklovsky writes: “[Tolstoy] describes the object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time.”) And the awesome moments in his novels gain their power from the fact that they arise, as if by historical inevitability, from the details that came before them. Anna Karenina was still alive at the end of the first draft, and it took her author a long time to reconcile himself to the tragic climax toward which his story was driving him. Tolstoy had good reason to believe that great scenes, like great men, are the product of invisible forces. But it took a great writer to see this.
For years, I’ve been daydreaming about a piece of fan fiction that I’d love to write, although I doubt I’ll ever get a chance to do it. Let’s call it The Carousel. It’s a midquel to Inception, which means that it takes place during the events of the original movie—in this case, after Cobb has assembled his team for the mind heist, but before they’ve actually gone into Fischer’s head. (There’s nothing in the film itself to rule this out: it’s unclear how much time passes after Saito approaches them with the assignment.) Cobb is concerned about Ariadne’s lack of experience, so he proposes that they practice first with a quick, straightforward job. It’s a commission from a striking, mysterious woman in her fifties who wants them to enter her aging father’s dreams to discover the secrets of his past. She is, of course, Sally Draper from Mad Men. The rest of the story follows the team as they invade Don’s mind, burrowing into his memories of his life at Sterling Cooper and the women he loved and lost, and probing ever deeper toward the dark heart of the man who was once known as Dick Whitman. We’d see Arthur and Ariadne trying to blend in at the office holiday party, or maybe Eames going undercover in Korea. And when they emerge from Don’s brain at last, with or without the answers that Sally wants, they’ve all been subtly changed, and they’re ready to go after Fischer. If nothing else, it explains why they’re still wearing those suits.
Alas, I don’t think I’ll ever write this story, mostly because I know I can’t give it the energy and attention it deserves. After I got the idea for the crossover, I decided to put it off until Mad Men finished its run, which would allow me to draw on Don’s full backstory, but the longer I waited, the more obvious it became that I couldn’t justify the investment of time it required. For one thing, I’d want to write it up as a full novel, and to do it justice, I’d have to go back and watch all seven seasons of the series, looking for places in which I could insert Cobb’s team into the background, à la Back to the Future Part II. I’d also want to revisit Inception itself to see if there were any plot holes or contradictions I could explain in the process. In short, it would be a lot of work for a story that I’m not sure anybody else would read, or particularly want to see. But I seem to have incepted myself with it, because I can’t get it out of my head. As with most fanfic, there’s an element of wish fulfillment involved: it allows me to spend a little more time with characters I probably won’t see ever again. Mad Men ended so beautifully that any continuation—like the Sally Draper spinoff series that was pitched in all seriousness at AMC—would only undermine its legacy. And Inception is one of the few recent blockbusters that deliberately makes a sequel impossible, despite the occasional rumblings that we hear along those lines. It won’t happen. But this is why fanfic exists.
In the meantime, I’ll sometimes try to scratch that itch by reading a novel or short story and mentally casting all the characters with faces from Mad Men. It’s a habit that I picked up years ago, when I first read Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, and I’ve done it since with Airport and a few of John D. MacDonald’s novels. (I still think that Jon Hamm would make a perfect Travis McGee.) And the show maps onto George O. Smith’s stories about the space station Venus Equilateral almost too well. I’ll often do it when reading a story that is best approached as a period piece, thanks either to the author’s intentions or to the passage of time. Picturing Don, Joan, and the rest at least allows me to keep the clothes and hairstyles straight, which is a more significant factor than it might first appear: a book like John Updike’s Couples reads altogether differently when you realize that all of the women would have been dressed like Betty Draper. In other cases, it amounts to a hybrid form of fanfic, enabling the kind of dream casting that still makes me wish, say, for a miniseries version of The Corrections starring the cast of Arrested Development—which just makes me want to read that novel again with those actors in mind, just as I recently went back to Red Dragon while picturing Hugh Dancy as Will. It’s a harmless game, and it can bring out elements of a story that I might have overlooked, just as the casting of a particular movie star in a film can clarify a character in ways that a screenwriter can’t.
And this is just a variation on what happens inside all our heads when we read a novel. Only half of the work is done by the writer on the page; the other half occurs in the reader’s brain, which populates the novel with faces, settings, and images that the author might never have envisioned. What I see when I read a story is drastically different from what appears in your mind’s eye, and we have no way of comparing them directly. (That said, an adaptation can lock certain elements into place for many readers, so that their imaginations run more or less in parallel. Ten years ago, no two fans saw the characters from A Song of Ice and Fire in quite the same way, but thanks to Game of Thrones, I suspect that a lot of readers now just picture Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke, as if a wave function had collapsed into exactly one eigenstate.) The fact that fanfic bridges that gap instantaneously, so that we can immediately see all of our favorite characters, is a large part of its appeal—and the main reason why it’s a flawed school for writers who are still learning their craft. Creating believable characters from scratch is the single hardest aspect of writing, and fanfic allows you to skip that crucial step. Aspiring writers should be wary of it for the same reason that the playwright Willy Russell avoids listening to music or drinking wine while he works: “I think both those things seduce you into thinking that the feelings engendered by the wine or music are present in your work.” That’s true of fanfic, too, and it’s why I’ll probably never end up writing The Carousel. But I can dream, can’t I?
Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What show did you stop watching after a character was killed off?”
Inside Out is an extraordinary film on many levels, but what I appreciated about it the most was the reminder it provides of how to tell compelling stories on the smallest possible scale. The entire movie turns on nothing more—or less—than a twelve-year-old girl’s happiness. Riley is never in real physical danger; it’s all about how she feels. These stakes might seem relatively low, but as I watched it, I felt that the stakes were infinite, and not just because Riley reminded me so much of my own daughter. By the last scene, I was wrung out with emotion. And I think it stands as the strongest possible rebuke to the idea, so prevalent at the major studios, that mainstream audiences will only be moved or excited by stories in which the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance. As I’ve noted here before, “Raise the stakes” is probably the note that writers in Hollywood get the most frequently, right up there with “Make the hero more likable,” and its overuse has destroyed their ability to make such stories meaningful. When every superhero movie revolves around the fate of the entire planet, the death of six billion people can start to seem trivial. (The Star Trek reboot went there first, but even The Force Awakens falls into that trap: it kills off everyone on the Hosnian System for the sake of a throwaway plot point, and it moves on so quickly that it casts a pall over everything that follows.)
The more I think about this mindless emphasis on raising the stakes, the more it strikes me as a version of a phenomenon I’ve discussed a lot on this blog recently, in which big corporations tasked with making creative choices end up focusing on quantifiable but irrelevant metrics, at the expense of qualitative thinking about what users or audiences really need. For Apple, those proxy metrics are thinness and weight; for longform journalism, it’s length. And while “raising the stakes” isn’t quite as quantitative, it sort of feels that way, and it has the advantage of being the kind of rule that any midlevel studio employee can apply with minimal fear of being wrong. (It’s only when you aggregate all those decisions across the entire industry that you end up with movies that raise the stakes so high that they turn into weightless abstractions.) Saying that a script needs higher stakes is the equivalent of saying that a phone needs to be thinner: it’s a way to involve the maximum number of executives in the creative process who have no business being there in the first place. But that’s how corporations work. And the fact that Pixar has managed to avoid that trap, if not always, then at least consistently enough for the result to be more than accidental, is the most impressive thing about its legacy.
A television series, unlike a studio franchise, can’t blow up the world on a regular basis, but it can do much the same thing to its primary actors, who are the core building blocks of the show’s universe. As a result, the unmotivated killing of a main character has become television’s favorite way of raising the stakes—although by now, it feels just as lazy. As far as I can recall, I’ve never stopped watching a show solely because it killed off a character I liked, but I’ve often given up on a series, as I did with 24 and Game of Thrones and even The Vampire Diaries, when it became increasingly clear that it was incapable of doing anything else. Multiple shock killings emerge from a mindset that is no longer able to think itself into the lives of its characters: if you aren’t feeling your own story, you have no choice but to fall back on strategies for goosing the audience that seem to work on paper. But almost without exception, the seasons that followed would have been more interesting if those characters had been allowed to survive and develop in honest ways. Every removal of a productive cast member means a reduction of the stories that can be told, and the temporary increase in interest it generates doesn’t come close to compensating for that loss. A show that kills characters with abandon is squandering narrative capital and mortgaging its own future, so it’s no surprise if it eventually goes bankrupt.
A while back, Bryan Fuller told Entertainment Weekly that he had made an informal pledge to shun sexual violence on Hannibal, and when you replace “rape” with “murder,” you get a compelling case for avoiding gratuitous character deaths as well:
There are frequent examples of exploiting rape as low-hanging fruit to have a canvas of upset for the audience…“A character gets raped” is a very easy story to pitch for a drama. And it comes with a stable of tropes that are infrequently elevated dramatically, or emotionally. I find that it’s not necessarily thought through in the more common crime procedurals. You’re reduced to using shorthand, and I don’t think there can be a shorthand for that violation…And it’s frequently so thinly explored because you don’t have the real estate in forty-two minutes to dig deep into what it is to be a victim of rape…All of the structural elements of how we tell stories on crime procedurals narrow the bandwidth for the efficacy of exploring what it is to go through that experience.
And I’d love to see more shows make a similar commitment to preserving their primary cast members. I’m not talking about character shields, but about finding ways of increasing the tension without taking the easy way out, as Breaking Bad did so well for so long. Death closes the door on storytelling, and the best shows are the ones that seem eager to keep that door open for as long as possible.
Nearly seven years ago, when readers of A Song of Ice and Fire were anxiously awaiting the appearance of A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin published a blog post titled “To My Detractors.” He noted “the rising tide of venom” that had arisen in response to the book’s lateness, and he wrote:
Some of you are angry about the miniatures, the swords, the resin busts, the games. You don’t want me “wasting time” on those, or talking about them here. Some of you are angry that I watch football during the fall. You don’t want me “wasting time” on the NFL, or talking about it here.
Some of you hate my other projects…Some of you don’t want me attending conventions, teaching workshops, touring and doing promo, or visiting places like Spain and Portugal (last year) or Finland (this year). More wasting time, when I should be home working on A Dance with Dragons.
After all, as some of you like to point out in your emails, I am sixty years old and fat, and you don’t want me to “pull a Robert Jordan” on you and deny you your book.
Martin obviously didn’t take such criticisms all that seriously. Last week, however, he published another post that was very different in tone. A Dance with Dragons had finally come out four years earlier, and fans had moved on to clamoring for the release of The Winds of Winter. Martin wrote: “You wanted an update. Here’s the update. You won’t like it.” He acknowledged that the book wasn’t close to being done, and he continued:
Unfortunately, the writing did not go as fast or as well as I would have liked. You can blame my travels or my blog posts or the distractions of other projects and the Cocteau and whatever, but maybe all that had an impact…you can blame my age, and maybe that had an impact too…but if truth be told, sometimes the writing goes well and sometimes it doesn’t, and that was true for me even when I was in my twenties.
This post was widely reported and analyzed, but few observers appear to have noted the extent to which it deliberately echoed its predecessor, almost point for point. Martin seemed to grant that the “distractions” invoked by his detractors might, in fact, have been partially responsible for the delay—and although this sounds like a concession to his critics, it feels more to me like an act of self-wounding from a writer who is already deeply depressed, to use his own words, by his own lack of progress.
And as much as I can understand it, it saddens me. Martin is a gardener, not an architect, and as an avowed architect myself, I can speak with some objectivity about the advantages, as well the disadvantages, of the gardener’s approach. What impatient fans sometimes fail to recognize is that the very elements that they love so much about the series arise from precisely the same place as the factors that have led to these delays. Its density of detail, its attention to character, its sense of taking even its author by surprise: all are inseparable from a creative process that is inherently unpredictable. In a blog post that most famously included the line “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch,” Neil Gaiman got close to the heart of the matter:
It seems to me that the biggest problem with series books is that either readers complain that the books used to be good but that somewhere in the effort to get out a book every year the quality has fallen off, or they complain that the books, although maintaining quality, aren’t coming out on time.
And the tradeoff between time and quality—which might strike regular readers of this blog as familiar—is especially true of a series like A Song of Ice and Fire. If you want to live with the richness and unpredictibility that the gardener provides, you have to be prepared to die by it as well. And if those double-edged qualities weren’t there, you wouldn’t have been drawn to these books in the first place.
But there’s also a very real sense in which the series’s own successes contained the seeds of its downfall. (This is certainly true of Game of Thrones itself, which I’ve stopped watching largely because of issues that were invisibly contained in its conception from the very beginning.) Martin’s approach to writing isn’t wrong, but it’s problematic when linked, like a conjoined twin, to a television series that has to release new seasons on a regular schedule. The idea of a novelist finishing a book series in parallel with its production in other media isn’t unprecedented: J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter did much the same. But the movies are less hungry for plot and more forgiving of delay, and big franchises, like the James Bond series, have weathered long interruptions in production without damaging the brand. A cable series can’t do that, and the pressure on Martin, which is clearly enormous, arises from a structural tension between the kinds of novels he writes and the implacable logic of television—which doesn’t even mention the pressure from his publishing house, which is a huge machine trembling to take action as soon as his manuscript is delivered. Martin, who spent years writing for television, knows this, but he still hoped he could make it work: “I never thought the series could possibly catch up with the books, but it has.” His disappointment in himself is painfully clear, and his sole consolation should be that what he was trying to do was probably impossible. Being unable to write to your satisfaction is the worst thing that can happen to any writer, regardless of the larger systems in which he plays a role, and we can only say to writer’s block what Arya is told to say to death: “Not today.”