“Tits and Dragons” – the risible show for 12-year-old minds to gleefully sing-along-to while earning their Boy Scout Mutual Masturbation Badge, has once again cheated more deserving TV shows and teleplay bangers out of awards to become the most decorated series in the history of The Emmys.
Television’s worst show, Game of Thrones stole Outstanding Drama Series and D.B. Weiss and David Benioff picked up the Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series award at last night’s Emmys. The two showrunners living up to their job titles as they were last seen making a show of signing contracts with a horned man in the Microsoft Center parking lot before running away, laughing and pocketing millions.
Admittedly, the episode which won Best Directed and Best Written Awards, season six’s Battle of the Bastards was mightily impressive in scope, spectacle and production logistics: Worthy of Best Set Design, Best Costumes, Best Stuntwork, Most Horses Wrangled and Most Shouting in an Expensive Battle Scene. At a push, one could make an argument for Best Direction but an hour-long drama which features nearly thirty minutes with zero dialogue simply cannot constitute great television writing, let alone win The Emmy for Outstanding Writing.
If you believe that BOTB’s one, singular, lazy Chekov’s hungry dog set-up and pay-off (delivered by Sophie Turner, an actress who can barely act) and overused army-turning-up-to-save-the-day flanking trope, together with lots of yelling is worthy of The Emmy for Best Writing, well… let’s just say the showrunner’s snake-oil worked on both you and the Academy.
Of course, my title is only semi-serious – there are far worse shows on TV, but The Game of Thrones isn’t half as good as you’ve been imbibed into thinking it is by a couple of Men behind the Curtain… and a couple a hundred million people who couldn’t write their way out of an episode of Fraggle Rock and whose understanding of the medium consists of these exact two sentences;
“It was well-written.”
“Yes, it was well-written, wasn’t it.”
Game of Thrones’ production is often impressive and the show occasionally contains great moments but this cannot disguise the fact it is consistently badly-written by two showrunners who seemingly understand about as much about the basics of serialised television as my two above quoted mates. Often, scripts that Benioff, Weiss, Cogman et al turn in are so inept, they defy physics and tarnish the reputations of the hundreds of skilled technicians they employ.
HISTORY AND GEOGRAPHY, OR… TIME AND PLACE
Time and again, both audio-visually and thematically, the show demonstrates how never to transition between two scenes and any best efforts to convey the passage of time and location are lost. Weeks seem to go by in one location while mere hours pass in a cross-cut location. Bad-writing has a knock-on effect of creating conventional pacing problems, but these cross-cut time anomalies doubly upset the pacing because they create a kind of cognitive dissonance in the viewer’s already discombobulated minds. How many months have these adults been travelling the lands asking children “Will you fight with us?” while Jon von What’s-his-tits has been drinking that flagon o’ Dragon ale?
I’ve said it a million times, but a director’s most basic, and therefore most important job is to convey WHERE we are and WHEN we are in the story. These two foundations – time and place – form an unwritten promise between the show and the viewer but Game of Thrones disregards this unwritten contract more often than it can stick to it. A director’s and his/her editor’s job is to establish the geography of a scene; to show where we are in the grand scheme of things, where characters are in relation to each other and objects. And yet, Miguel Sapochnik’s crazed camera swerves and unintelligible close-ups, coupled with Tim Porter’s unintentionally hilarious jump scares and 20-frame edits make the action too frenetic to follow.
Maybe most guilty of all, the writers never build any sense of tension towards a finalé. Despite having been gifted a ticking clock in every episode – clue: it’s called the end of the episode – the writers forget to use this to their advantage. I can never tell if there are fifteen minutes or fifteen seconds remaining because, when we should be hurtling towards inescapable inevitability, episodes always just kinda… end, or worse; carry on.
Shouldn’t the one show with dragons at its core should understand what these creatures represent to our collective consciousness? (go and read your Tolkien, boys!) Nope, Martin, Weiss and Benioff have flushed thousands of years of storytelling, metaphor and psychoanalysis and down the proverbial crapper but not only is GoT somehow, bizarrely utterly bereft of analogy… worse; they’ve also circumvented 100 years of film and television as language.
Instead of treating the viewer as an eager, hungry participating detective – always hunting for clues and predicting what will happen next – the audience is reduced to pitchfork-wielding peasant bystanders watching SOME THINGS HAPPEN. Things they don’t understand because nine times out of ten, events occur for no reason other than the script requires it instead of character’s decisions based upon their psychology and backstory. Survival, greed. loyalty, family history, blind loyalty, machismo are not character motivations, they’re the opposite – and the televisual equivalent of saying “Get used to eating shit, that’s just how things are done around these parts.”
One of The Game of Thrones’ biggest flaws is that the showrunners simply cannot fathom that books need to be ADAPTED for the screen – Novels and TV are two incredibly different media and they each need to be treated by their own rules. Television scenes are not standalone chapters, they are an interconnecting series of events that, through cause and effect should efficiently drive the story towards a convergence or crossroads of character, time, location and conflict.
See Damon Lindelof’s near-perfect The Leftovers as the perfect example of how to adapt the medium of the novel to the medium of TV. The language of film and TV is a set of audio-visual short-cuts which contain their own unique grammar, syntax, tropes and psychological tricks to hijack your eyes, ears, mind, heart and soul.
They convey time, place, character, backstory, voice, motion and emotion utilising, colour, texture, style, visual metaphor, subconscious Jungian archetypes genre, music, audio cues, set-design, camera moves and editing techniques in order to MAKE US FUCKING FEEL. Not just the shock of a predictably unpredictable death, but tension, fear, happiness, relief, shame, cringeworthiness, foreboding, vengeance, love, hate, fear, joy, hope; every emotion sucking us in to feel exactly what a character feels in any given moment within stories about the human condition. And guess what, Game of Thrones’ cardboard cutouts achieve none of this.
Every decision, every action must raise stakes, whether over one hour, one season or six seasons, ever-building towards critical mass. Instead, GoT’s most-competent characters suddenly becoming incompetent, illogical decision-making, bafflingly bad-military tactics, egregiously poor set-ups and pay-offs, Valerian plot armour, deus ex machinas and clichèd fantasy tropes hastily-conceived in the writers’ room may create forward-momentum towards MORE THINGS HAPPENING but it all adds up to Game of Thrones worst crime…
Meaningful story-arcs where characters come to self-realisation, learn, grow and change are non-existent. Intriguing set-ups and satisfactory pay-offs seem beyond the writer’s comprehension, as do telegraphing, breadcrumb-laying and causal logic.
For example. in season six, Arya Stark disappears for an indiscernible amount of time only for The Waif to suddenly appear from out of nowhere and stab her. That word “suddenly” is all very well and good in a novel but within television, a trail of breadcrumbs must first be laid. We need to see a dagger being sharpened or evidence that an assassin is in the same city as Arya. We need POV shots that show she is being followed – the audience needs to see what’s coming before the characters; THAT is how tension is built otherwise, every action becomes nothing more than a series of SHIT HAPPENING.
These filmmaking basics are broken over and over again, and not to be avant-garde or subversive… the showrunners aren’t flouting the rules, they just don’t know da rules. The problem is, “suddenly, from out of nowhere” on TV becomes a scare-jump. Shock is all well and good in a teen slasher horror movie, but it’s the antithesis of good television writing.
That said, 100 million people including the Emmy panel don’t really seem to know the rules either. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (before The Game of Thrones the latter had written less than half an hour of scripted television – a single episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) definitely deserve plaudits for turning George R.R. Martin’s laughable novels into the most successful show in history. Miguel Sapochnik (and his cinematographer, Fabian Wagner) may deserve the Emmy for Best Direction, but it comes to something when The Academy doesn’t know the difference between a well-directed piece of television and a well-written one.
How much of a half-hour battle-scene is ever actually written? Well, not much. In fact, this whole sequence in which Jon Snow is reborn was unscripted.
Staging battles is a logistical nightmare involving months of planning and even then, what you end up with on-screen may be decided by what’s possible on the day. Because of this, up to 90% of battle scenes have nothing to do with the writers.
Everything is planned and executed by an army of the best technical experts in the industry: director, DOP, fight directors, stunt coordinators, stunt performers, animal wranglers, horse mistresses, riders, pyrotechnicians, armourers, costumiers, knitters and, in this case, I’d even wager historians and battle-experts were drafted in. And that’s alongside the perma-forgotten crew members; practical and VFX artists, jib operators, ADs, drivers, craft services to feed hundreds of people and three or four camera crews.
Each year, The Game of Thrones sets aside one episode and throws millions of extra dollars to quadruple the size of the production and employing the best technicians on the planet, then asks The Academy to consider that one episode for Best in Show… and every year…
Battle of the Bastards took a staggering 25 days to shoot and involved thousands of crew. The hike in quality is obvious in every department (except the writing) – cityscapes look more realistic (all VFX are better), time has been taken to ensure green screens are correctly lit, the battle scenes more bloodthirsty, the cinematographer can afford not to frame so tightly as THREE dragons make for a brilliant hour of television, right? Wrong. For me, all this spectacle just smacks of The Emperor’s New Clothes, and here’s the secret formula:
Style over substance + Bread and Circus = The American Dream
Forgive me if I’ve got this wrong, and I fully accept that I’m one lone voice in a sea of hundreds of millions, but I don’t think the best-written episode of TV is necessarily just the most expensive or one with the most horses or even the best cinematography. If you want to point out that The Game of Thrones must be great because it’s won all those awards, come back to me when you’ve finished rewatching Titanic. The greatest film ever made. By your rationale.
Or, for real, character-driven TV writing from the past year, you could check out Better Call Saul, Bloodline, The Leftovers, The Night of… and Mr Robot. Fuck man, even this show contained more nuanced character development.
As you were.