When Spirit Fades, Form Appears
Recently, a friend of mine wrote an article on her experiences at the Berlin Film Festival. She posited that every stage of story production is inherently social; you have to deal with people from conception to release, and the social contract even extends to the act of watching. In a theater, you experience the shared shuffling, coughing, unwrapping of snacks, occasional whispers, but all participants know why they are there: to watch a film. At episode watch parties at apartments or bars, which have been commonplace for over a decade now in this age of prestige television, that social contract is much the same. There are rules of engagement to production and consumption, and however lax or rigid these rules may be, they are certainly real.
But, while production is social, it seems that there is no democracy. This is part and parcel to modern production and the economics of a capitalist entertainment industry. Executive Committee rules all, happily placing pop-culture productions into the hands of arrogant, malleable talents. Anything that can be squeezed will be squeezed; Star Wars has become millennial oil, and the ceaseless re-ignition of nostalgia farming has reached a gilded frenzy in Hollywood. Production resources are funneling upwards at a rate not seen in decades, and test audiences and storytelling by committee have become the norm.
None of this is necessarily new, but it’s become a machine that’s now probably impossible to stop. A production that encompasses all of these problems is Game of Thrones.
David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, while capable, adequate showrunners, are very clearly inept writers. They were hired to adapt a book series, not write its conclusion; by their own admission, they wanted the show to air long enough for them to get to the Red Wedding, and let the show be carried by that momentum. I’m not going to go into specifics about the show’s writing or plotting, or how I feel about particular choices therein, as that’s not the point of this piece. The point is that Benioff & Weiss are a symptom of a huge problem in film and television production, one which seems to be an ingrained belief: big budgets fix bad writing, so why bother with writing?
The folks who work on GoT have been given a pretty raw deal over the last few seasons; the actors, VFX team, art department, post team, and (I would reasonably assume) everyone down to the PAs getting coffee have been knocking it out of the park, episode after episode. They’re doing wonderful work in a demanding industry with a rabid, frothing fanbase, the cousins of which have driven stars of similarly large franchises off of social media entirely. Many people involved in GoT, from Emilia Clarke to Jack Gleeson, have received unacceptable ire and violence from toxic fans who are more interested in throwing rocks than in earnestly critiquing the show. Even when a negative reaction to the show has been relatively reasonable in tone and thought, they still often miss the mark by blaming the actors and production crew, when the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of Benioff, Weiss, and HBO’s bottom line.
The problem with all of this is not that there is a deviation from source material, or that it “would have been better” if Benioff and Weiss had followed the books. The problem is a systematic lack of care, effort, and humility in the face of such a gargantuan task, one which consumes the labor and effort of thousands of people for a single episode of television. No matter how well everyone else does their jobs, the end result will be miserably diminished due to narrative bottleneck at the top — which in this case is Benioff and Weiss.
The deconstruction of this problem is a frustrating, boring mess. Benioff and Weiss adapted a loved but relatively obscure fantasy franchise into one of the most explosively popular productions in television history, and then, inscrutably, decided to deviate from the format that had granted them success. The lack of a complete novel series is the principal reason for this deviation, of course, but that is not in and of itself an excuse for lazy writing. Not having access to source material should have presented an artistic challenge that was to be met with at least the same amount of artistic and creative passion that the cast and everyone below the line brought to the show. Instead, we got it all by rote.
The narrative and writing issues plaguing GoT since the end of Season 4 are increasingly common in hyper-expensive flagship prestige dramas. Westworld, Star Trek: Discovery, Stranger Things, and the Walking Dead, to name a few, seem to suffer from a profundity paradox: characters are almost always engaged in the highest stakes ever, and every conversation is full of revelation after revelation. It’s operatic in the worst way. This creates a palaver of numb drama on every channel, and keeps people watching out of boredom or obligation. It’s the cinematic equivalent of jingling a set of keys in front of a crying toddler’s face: keep ’em watching, don’t let them look at their phones, and make some noise. Benioff and Weiss take it a step further with their baffling decisions to explain the entire episode, right after we’ve seen it, in their post-episode talkbacks. Tell, don’t show.
When spirit fades, form appears. Dissatisfaction with this bland narrative oatmeal is expected. But, let’s not take it out on the folks below the narrative chokepoint who are doing their jobs with great care and effort.
In any case, after next Sunday, we’ll all be set free until the next Cultural Phenomenon. How fucking exciting.