On My Way
The Game of Thrones Issue
by Fernando J. Contreras
For the past two weeks I’ve been working on a play: The Man With All The Answers (tentative title.) It’s shaping up, but I still have to figure out how far I can take it. My problem is that I don’t care much about plot, so it’s hard for me to find one. First I work on finding the subtext, the big philosophical questions I want to explore, and don’t care much if the story moves from Point A to Point B.
This comes with some challenges. Audiences normally hang on to a storyline, to the What happens next? If a man is stranded in a faraway land and wants to return to his family, the story is one of a voyage packed with obstacles and adventures, while the audience wonders What danger awaits? But as a writer, that’s not interesting to explore because that’s the plot of a three thousand year old story.
The obstacles Odysseus confronts — Polyphemus, the lotus-eaters, Skylla — are just a small part of the story. What really matters is the subtext. I’m not only asking myself What happens next? but also What does this mean?
My stories focus on this second question. Placing more importance on the storyline runs the risk of having an audience that ignores the themes. The familiar tends to bury the depths of the unexplored. A car chase raises the question, Will Car A catch Car B? but that’s about it. De-familiarizing the narrative allows the audience to ask, What the hell does this mean? Why is this being told to me? If those questions are structurally sound, (meaning, if they are well narrated), the audience is empowered to explore the philosophical problems posed by the author. Instead of distractions that carry us away from introspection, we get to challenge our beliefs, roles, fears, and limitations.
Odysseus and his men arrive at the island of the uncivilized Cyclopes. There’s an argument about stealing, but Odysseus wants to behave as good guests, and expects Polyphemus to follow the rules of hospitality. The monster doesn’t recognize such human rules and traps the men inside his cave. He is going to eat them. Odysseus later tricks Polyphemus by getting him drunk. The Cyclops asks for Odysseus’ name, and he says it is ‘Nobody.’ Polyphemus passes out and Odysseus blinds him. When the other Cyclopes hear Polyphemus scream, they ask, ‘Who hurt you?’ And the Cyclops says, ‘Nobody. Nobody hurt me.’ So they leave him alone. Then Odysseus and his men escape.
Next scene. Odysseus and his men are on their ships, ready to sail, with a clear path home. Polyphemus is at the shore throwing rocks, but since he’s blind, he’s helpless. Instead of leaving quietly, Odysseus reveals his true identity. This is a costly mistake, but glory is important to Odysseus, who wants for future generations to attach his name to the legend. He wants to be famous, to be remembered. Due to this act of hubris, though, Odysseus suffers greatly. Polyphemus prays to his father, the god Poseidon, and this triggers a series of events that will delay Odysseus’ arrival by years and lead to the death of all of his men.
What does it mean?
While the plot is one of adventures and obstacles, the subtext wants us to examine the price of glory (Why do we seek the admiration of others? Why do we trade the relationship with our tribe for the respect of strangers?), the self-interest of leaders (why do we side with the hero if every supporter/sidekick/follower ends up dead? Isn’t that poor leadership? Yes, I’m looking to you, Avengers,) and the morally suspect exploits of cunning heroes (Polyphemus was not evil; he was an uncivilized creature tending his sheep; Odysseus and his men had no business being in his island. It’s like going into the ocean and blaming the shark for biting you.)
So plot moves the story from Point A to Point B to Point C and gives the reader the illusion of development. It’s a device, since selected pieces of a character’s life are collected and arranged into one of the few plots available. A comedy begins in disarray and ends in order. A tragedy starts with order and moves toward disorder. In the middle there’s struggle. So whether the plot deals with overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, the voyage and return, or rebirth… all of this means nothing if the subtext is lacking.
Game of Distraction
Game of Thrones is a show where characters are constantly on their way to some other place. Why is this not on the Travel Channel? After all, people walk in the snow, walk in the desert, walk in atonement, walk the hallways of castles, and every now and then they sail. In short, it’s a show about burning calories while making alliances and plotting revenge, because regardless of the destination, after walking for two seasons, each character discovers they’ve been betrayed or surrounded. This while hosting a wedding or holding the door. Then they die, and the producers introduce the next batch of new characters.
The production value is amazing. One scene can require two hundred extras, dozens of horses, top-notch special effects, cranes, equipment… now move all of that to an exotic endpoint, say Portugal, Iceland, and Croatia, just to have Daenerys, mother of dragons, say something to the effect of “Will you fight for me?” while hundreds scream back, “Yes.” That’s an expensive few lines of dialogue.
But what does it mean? In Game of Thrones there’s no subtext, so it means nothing. Daenerys and her Genghis Khans are merely on their way to some place (she has been in transit for the entire run of the show) but the audience needed another speech to end the episode.
The actor Ian McShane (Deadwood) who joined the cast for the sixth season, had to endure the wrath of the fans because, according to them, he spoiled part of the plot during the promotional tour. This is the problem. When a story depends so heavily on plot it’s a) easy to ruin, and b) hard to revisit, since once we reach the ending, there’s no reason to go back.
Game of Thrones is successful because it’s a great distraction. The creators only worry about revealing information slowly while adding a few melodramatic surprises along the way, much like in the stories of old (Jon Snow came back to life! You know who else? Lazarus, a while back, except the latter builds Jesus up as the Messiah while the former’s return only means he’s still available to fight,)
When confronted by the press about his offense, Ian McShane said, “I was accused of giving the plot away, but I just think, ‘get a fucking life.’ It’s only tits and dragons.”