Deus ex ... what the heck?

Source: HBO

'Game of Thrones' Is Showing Symptoms of Michael Bay-itis

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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All right, “Game of Thrones” watchers: I’m about to start spoiling stuff. I know there was some sort of sports event Sunday night in which many of you were, inexplicably, even more keenly interested than the epic faceoff between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton. I’m not impugning your choices, because I’m a libertarian and because “men tossing ball to each other” is not objectively inferior to “men hacking each other to pieces with swords.”

However. Those of us who did watch the bloodsport have some talking to do, so I suggest you bookmark this column and come back to it after you’ve watched Sunday night’s episode. Which you should do right now. The rest of us are about to get down to some brass tacks.

La, la, la. This is your chance to tune out.

If you keep scrolling, you can’t blame me for spoilers.

Seriously, stop reading this if you care about “Game of Thrones” and have not yet watched the episode of June 19, 2016.

Still with me? OK. That was one of the most dramatically and visually effective episodes of “Game of Thrones” so far. The arguments between Sansa and Jon over what to do with their inadequately sized army were perhaps the truest-feeling scenes in the series. And then the battle scenes…. Well, I know there are people who hold out for last year’s stunning battle sequence against the White Walkers. But for my money, this was by far the most powerful battle sequence we have seen, not for epic scale, but for emotional impact and visual drama. The degree to which it captures the chaos and fear of a medieval battle was extraordinary. And the narrative beats were just astonishingly gripping, constantly escalating the tension without ever escalating it so far that you snap out of the drama and remind yourself that you’re really just watching a bunch of 21st century folks run around in funny costumes.

The episode also paid off Ramsay’s grotesque sadism. It even vindicated it, as a dramatic choice, against much criticism from the audience. I usually hate villains like that, partly because I’m intensely squeamish, but mostly because they’re one note and boring. In this case, however, thanks to Iwan Rheon’s fine acting, and the way in which his psychopathy became the background for Sansa’s belated maturation, his villainy gave the episode an emotional intensity it would never have had without the prospect of Sansa falling back into his hands. I was cheering out loud when House Arryn rode in to save the day, and that’s not really Who I Am as a Television Viewer.

So. I enjoyed the episode. Loved it, even. It was one of my favorite episodes. It was also one of the absolute worst episodes.

I’m not going to go into my various objections with the episode’s battle tactics (I’ll post them on my Facebook page, for anyone who cares). I will sum them up in two quick observations:

  1. Arrows travel slower than the speed of sound and should not be that hard to evade at long distances by a single person who knows that someone is firing arrows at him. Think “catching a pop fly,” not “dodging gunfire.” Modern bow hunters, who are trying to hit a single, possibly moving, target, tend to operate in distances of tens of yards, not hundreds.
  2. I appreciate the reference to the famous Battle of Cannae, but that pseudo-phalanx maneuver would probably not actually have worked as performed.

Yes, I know film battles are not like real battles. “Phalanx tactics don’t really work that way” and “your longbow arrow physics seems a bit wonky” are not critiques that you can reasonably expect TV writers to engage with. But let’s talk about that immense corpse wall: neat looking, but why did everyone crawl across the battlefield in the middle of a cavalry charge to die on top of each other in a neat pile? Were they taking a photo for the senior yearbook?

That sort of ridiculous staging matters because it breaks the viewer out of the drama and into the “What the heck are they doing?” world that internet nerds glory in, but most viewers hate.

The dramatic plot had similar problems. Littlefinger shows up to save the day from -- where? Where was he storing a sizeable army that was within a night’s ride, and also not noticed by Ramsay’s scouts or loyal lords? More to the point, why did Sansa not mention to Jon that if they waited a little longer, they could maybe have a bigger army? Well, because then we, the viewers, would not have had such a dramatic Dark Night of the Soul when it seemed that all was lost. Writers who are tempted into this sort of “I have a secret!” mechanism come to bad ends. Also, bad midpoints, bad third-act breaks and bad epilogues.

I’m not going to even talk about the deus ex machina of Littlefinger arriving just in time, except to parrot Ross Douthat, who noted that this is now the fourth consecutive Game of Thrones battle that has been resolved by the arrival of a surprise army. It would be nice if the screenwriters could think of some other way to get their characters out of a bad patch, perhaps some way involving superior tactics or planning.

Most people obviously don’t care about realism in battle scenes. Or for that matter, plot, or else how is Michael Bay still making movies? What they care about is, first, visually stunning sequences that convey an emotional reality; and second, characters and their development. The episode delivered on both, even as it dropped the ball on basically everything else.

I do worry a little bit that the visual stunning, and the need for a compelling three-act narrative structure in the big-budget battle episodes, has begun to tempt the writers away from telling stories that make sense as the writers move beyond the material that George R. R. Martin has published.

You see that temptation given free rein in modern action movies, where the object is to attract an international audience with amazing visuals, not a domestic audience with coherent and witty writing. It increasingly seems as if directors and producers start with the stunning set pieces they want: Hey, what if we dropped a car from an airplane onto a mountain?! What if we had a sword-fight scene within a chase scene, where the hero and villain are standing on two cars as they weave through a Cairo souk and evade grenades?! And then the writer’s job is to reverse engineer a script that will, sort of, lead up to and away from the set pieces.

But television is not immune, because that’s what audiences have been conditioned to expect: to say “Wow!” instead of “Yes, that’s how it would be.” It makes for a really gripping 15 minutes. But the folks behind “Game of Thrones” should take a breath and relax. We’re hooked. People are committed to a dramatic television show like this for a period of years, not a series of 15-minute highs.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net