Game of Thrones, America, and Hope

I read a lot of articles about last week’s episode of Game of Thrones (“Unbowed. Unbent. Unbroken.”). For the first two days, every article I read was of a piece with what I wrote: criticizing the show for going back to using rape as a story device. The Mary Sue’s stand against covering the show any longer upped the rhetoric from criticism to action.

Then, mid-week, they took a turn and I started reading articles taking the opposite stand or, at least, the stand that this scene wasn’t any worse than everything else we’d seen on the show. Every article confirmed my thought that whatever your opinions on that scene, it obliterated our ability to talk about anything else from that episode which is the cheapest shot any storyteller can take.

One article in particular bashed the “kitchen sink” approach to criticizing rape on the show: as if we can’t be horrified by more than one element of it. I cringed reading this since it sounded like what I’d said in the comments to my post. More than one article bashed The Mary Sue for misunderstanding their role as critics and one said what we needed was more public criticism of Game of Thrones like TMS’s. But, in deference to all the professional critics out there, no we don’t.

Almost every article I read caused me to go back to what I’d written to see how it stood up. Had I written an emotional hot take on the episode or examined larger issues? Was I repeating well-trod arguments against the show? How do I justify my fandom of the show and books in light of such an angry post?

What I arrived at in looking back at my response to the episode was that I’d done okay in my post and badly in my comments. I’d more or less focused on the sadism of the show in my post and that to me continues to be the throughline of my dislike of where that episode went and where the show goes in general. In what I’ll call “The Tarantino Effect,” the show has lost me. And, if I may conjecture, I think this is similar to what’s affected the writers at The Mary Sue.

The Tarantino Effect

In an early draft of my post, I included a non-sequitur about Tarantino’s films which I never reconnected to the thrust of the post so I deleted it. But this is that statement in long form: I was once a fan of Quentin Tarantino’s films. I suffered through the violence of Reservoir Dogs because I recognized the unique storytelling going on behind blood. I loved Pulp Fiction and saw it perhaps 6 times in the theater and uncounted times after that.

I watched True Romance (didn’t like it), Four Rooms (amusing), From Dusk Til Dawn (told myself I liked it), and even smirked at the Jack Kirby references in Crimson Tide (ghost-written by Tarantino).

Then, Jackie Brown struck me as the perfect synthesis of his genius for storytelling and film noir. That remains my favorite Tarantino movie and I probably watch it once a year.

I never watched all of Kill Bill. I couldn’t find a way into it. I didn’t care about its nameless protagonist and her countless murders. I saw it as an experiment in violent visuals. So I stopped paying attention. And you know what? I was never at a loss for other thoughtful, engaging, exciting fiction to consume.

Years later, I watched Inglourious Basterds at the behest of a girlfriend. While the story was interesting, the violence again turned me off. Sometime after that I started watching Death Proof. And then, as with Game of Thrones, there was “that scene”–I turned the movie off and decided never to give him another shot. I realized in making that conscious decision to stop a Tarantino movie mid-stream that what had turned me off of Kill Bill and all his subsequent work (and Natural Born Killers while we’re at it) was that he’d made his storytelling secondary (and sometimes even tertiary) to his hard-on for gore-porn. That’s what got him off: the shock, the blood, the violence.

As numerous critics have pointed out vis a vis Game of Thrones, that quest for another, greater shock is the chasing of a high that takes Tarantino (and the GOT runners and GRRM) away from the story he could be telling.

Gore and violence in a film are like smothering a good song in synthesizers–you gotta wade through the corn syrup to find the tune. But Tarantino, in my eyes, didn’t have any good songs any more. He just had buckets of corn syrup and like, one cool riff.

Reviewers vs critics vs fans

For several years, I made part of my living as a critic and reviewer. It wasn’t until after I stopped criticizing professionally that I finally read a great explanation of a the difference between a reviewer and a critic. I realized that, for years, I (and my peers) had been muddling the two roles: supplying criticism where it wasn’t needed and reviewing when we ought be criticizing.

There is another role to consider in the act of watching a movie or television show and reporting on it: that is the role of fan. Most of us who have ever professionally reviewed or criticized came to that vocation as fans. Certainly, that is the role in which the writers at The Mary Sue are most comfortable.

One of the articles I read criticized The Mary Sue‘s phrase “we will no longer be promoting HBO’s Game of Thrones,” arguing that TMS didn’t understand the difference between criticism and promotion. But I’d argue that TMS has a much more honest understanding of what they do as critics when they cover a show than that author. Writing about a television show for a popular publication is promotion. Don’t think that the level of ire generated by last week’s episode of Game of Thrones does anything but cheer HBO’s marketing department.

When I left professional criticism, I wavered a while before I found a way to talk about others’ work on my site. I didn’t want any hard rules about what I’d write but I wanted to acknowledge that the snark and edge that were prevalent in my work as a critic were not a part of me.

Snark is almost required as a critic. You’re going to have to watch, read, and listen to things you probably abhor for a paycheck and to get through it, you develop a bit of an edge. But snark, even 7 years ago, had become such a hackneyed part of internet pop culture coverage that I found myself wondering if anyone covering any pop culture genuinely liked anything.

So I made the soft decision that I wasn’t going to cover things I don’t like. There are enough people in the world to tell you that a movie is bad. I just wanted to write about what I liked and why I liked it.

Turning Off

Turning off work that doesn’t connect with you isn’t an act of cowardice or an abdication of your responsibilities as a critic. It is in itself an act of criticism. In fact, it’s one of the best acts of criticism.

A year ago, I barely covered another rape scene in Game of Thrones because I gave the show runners credit to handle it. They never did. Now I feel as TMS’s editor-in-chief did then when she explained why she couldn’t let that scene go:

“You don’t understand how many I do let go. That’s the problem.”

I won’t say that I’ll never watch another episode of Game of Thrones. I’m fairly sure I’ll write about it here later. I’ll also probably discuss it with several people. But for the first time in four years (I binged Season 1), I didn’t watch it on Sunday night.

There is enough good art out there that a thing’s popularity shouldn’t convince us to continue giving credit where it isn’t due. There is enough corn syrup in the world. There are enough synthesizers. Give me the gut strings and a good tune. I don’t need to chase a greater high.