D.B. Weiss David Benioff

GAME OF THRONES, TWIN PEAKS and the Pitfalls of Crafting a Saga

Monday, July 17, 2017 Rob Samuelson

Check-in storytelling


Photo credit: Game of Thrones/Facebook



A hardened, despicable feudal lord acts strangely. He invites his support system of allies and extended family to celebrate a feast for the second time in a couple weeks. He acknowledges how out of character it is for him to be so generous. “It’s weird, sure,” his guests think, “but at least we’re getting a spiffy dinner out of the deal.” They lift their glasses to commemorate the moment. Chalices clink, sips are had, choking commences. Blood bubbles through their rotting teeth, dribbling over the fine dishes that are revealed to be nothing more than bait. They keel over, poisoned to death, as the lord removes his face, which was really an elaborate mask worn by a teenage girl who has been consumed by revenge throughout every instant of her formative years.


With that violent poisoning sequence, Game of Thrones checked in for its seventh season.


The series about warring families in the mythical realm of Westeros began its penultimate season by dropping in on its various gloomy characters as they bicker, plot, and dread an apocalyptic disaster they fear they will be unable to defeat. As Thrones premiere episodes go, it was standard stuff, allowing the audience to spend a few moments with members of a cast that has ballooned to around a dozen key players over the years. Here’s Arya Stark showcasing the skills she learned while she trained to be an assassin in previous seasons. Here’s Queen Cersei Lannister standing atop a painted map of the country she rose to govern last year, concerned about how she will rule it all. So on and so forth until we get a glimpse of Daenerys Targaryen, the dragon-riding true heir to the throne on which Cersei sits, as she sets foot on Westerosi soil for the first time after a lifetime spent abroad in exile.


Each character has spent six seasons on a journey of incremental change that is hardly perceptible from episode to episode. That’s because Game of Thrones is run by a pair of men, executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who have likened their fantasy series (adapted from George R.R. Martin’s series of novels) to a “73-hour movie.” At times, this is the series’ great strength, because it allows character development to breathe in a way that a 120-minute film would not. Benioff, Weiss, and the other writers are able to luxuriate in a story about human greed, violence, and the soul-souring effects of obtaining power on a grand scale. We are able to see the aftereffects of tumultuous moments in these characters’ lives in all their torturous glory. Deaths in the family, recovery from violence, and characters reckoning with their own fatal flaws offer an audience clues about how to handle themselves in their own lives’ most troubling times. This has the case more often than not during the show’s run, but this storytelling strategy often leads to significant problems, too.


Sagas and bloat



Mechanically, this type of saga building can drag on the narrative. Because they know they have so much time to fill, Benioff and Weiss and company succumb to the urge to find backstories for nearly everyone who appears on Game of Thrones. Sometimes, this works, but oftentimes, like with the denizens of the nation of Dorne, this inclination leads to wheel spinning. The Sand Snake characters that make up the Dornish ruling class could have been deployed like the various bounty hunters and junk traders in the Star Wars films, cool-looking pieces of flair who show up and engage with a viewer’s brain about what they could possibly mean to the world without detracting from the overall story of the piece. Instead, like in Martin’s novels, the TV show spends lots of time with these people, some of whom have remarkable similarities to the people who populated the series from the beginning. The ambition to turn every character in a piece into a three-dimensional human being/magical creature is correct, but it often leads the creators to lose sight of the end game. This impulse to create a mosaic of people who struggle with each other and themselves shows there is more that unites people than divides us. But from a plot-propulsion standpoint it sucks all the air out of the room.


This creates a problem for the show where there are so many players who appear to be important because the show spends so much time with them, but they have little bearing on the series’ end game. Characters disappear for years at a time, like the immortal Beric Dondarrion, who has been in episodes from various points in the series. He’s there in season seven’s premiere episode and it’s easy to forget what made him important in the first place, so there is an extended exposition sequence there to remind viewers, “Okay, this is the guy who gets magically revived every time he dies. That’s a big deal, even though we’ve seen series protagonist Jon Snow resurrected more recently in a more emotionally affecting way.” Adding to the confusion, he has been portrayed by two different actors, Richard Dormer and David Michael Scott.


Homework



Beric Dondarrion is one of several characters, events, or themes that have fueled one of the most profitable pieces of pop culture media since Game of Thrones debuted in 2011. That is the “X things you need to know/remember before you watch the new season of Game of Thrones.” In the early years, this was generated mostly by people who were caught up on Martin’s novels, people who were privy to plot twists and character traits years in advance. The TV series has since passed the books’ narrative because Martin has yet to complete the sixth of seven planned installments in his literary saga.

Nowadays, the articles that appear on every pop culture website about the start of a new Game of Thrones season are glorified laundry lists intended to make the reader remember things that shouldn’t be so hard to recall. “This is where [character] was last time we saw them, and this is what they did there, and this is why it matters.” If the show had been firing on all cylinders and focused on its core concerns and characters, it wouldn’t require extensive Cliff’s Notes to remind its dedicated fans of the show they love. At times you have to be a super fan who digs into every aspect of the series to even have a working knowledge of what is happening in the show. Even if you’ve seen every episode (good luck jumping in at random if you haven’t) it’s hard to know who everyone is and how they relate to each other.


It can be done



Game of Thrones’ problems with bloat can be remedied. One only needs to look at the other premium cable series that inhabits the 9 p.m. Eastern time slot, Showtime’s Twin Peaks, which I last wrote about in May after its third and fourth episodes (of 18) debuted. Twin Peaks has a lot of cosmetic similarities to the HBO swords-and-dragons drama, including magical creatures and realms, idiosyncratic characters ensnared by a cruel and unforgiving world, and most of all, an enormous cast. But unlike Game of Thrones, Twin Peaks takes the Star Wars approach to its side characters.

Photo credit: Twin Peaks/Facebook



Its original cast, many of whom returned from the show’s run on ABC from 1990-’91, are instantly recognizable, their names popping in the viewer’s head even decades after last experiencing their stories. Dr. Jacoby’s red-and-blue glasses evoke his numerous appearances in first series. The swirl of hair atop dopey Deputy Andy Brennan’s head has thinned, but it’s still there, reminding the audience of how lovable the dimwitted police officer has always been. The list goes on from there.


But more impressively series director and co-writer David Lynch has managed to make new characters as memorable as any from the first show. Perhaps the best example of this is Wally Brando, the son of Deputy Andy and Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department receptionist Lucy, who is played by Michael Cera in a delightful one-scene cameo in the show’s fourth episode. By doing a comically horrible impression of Marlon Brando for a few minutes, Wally is merely another goofball in the town. He’s unimportant to the season’s main plot -- a battle of good vs. evil personified by two men who have the same body -- but he enriches the world of Twin Peaks in a way that side characters in Game of Thrones often do not.


The magic of Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost’s strategy here is to know when to let a character go before they become a burden. Wally Brando is marvelous because he’s a novelty that reflects the best the series’ world has to offer. His inclusion in the show hints that there is lovable oddness to be found in a world that is usually miserable and filled with people who would do you harm. He and others like him (like the Detectives Fusco, a trio of cops who share a name and giggle-happy demeanor but may not be related) are reminders that not all hope is lost, even when there is rape and murder and all kinds of other obscene human behavior to be found in the town and its surrounding world.

Twin Peaks has suffered at times from pacing irregularities that can lead the show to feel adrift, but its characters are not to blame. You don’t need to know the tragedy of everyone’s life because that knowledge can become oppressive. Sometimes it’s okay to just meet a person once, become fascinated by them, and recall them fondly down the line.

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