Why it is hard to quit Game Of Thrones

A television still from Game Of Thrones season 4 starring Pedro Pascal as Oberyn Martell. -- PHOTO: HBO ASIA
A television still from Game Of Thrones season 4 starring Pedro Pascal as Oberyn Martell. -- PHOTO: HBO ASIA

To “rage-quit” is to yank oneself out of a computer game in frustration and disappointment. People who watch Game Of Thrones use the phrase a lot after beloved characters are killed.

Every time a high body-count episode is aired, fuming viewers throng the message boards. They scream at author George R.R. Martin, calling him a murderer, a crusher of hopes and smasher of dreams, a sick so-and-so and an all-around party pooper. They threaten to rage-quit the show.

But they never do.

They hug it out, share their grief, hold virtual funerals on the Web. Then they tune in the following week, in ever-growing numbers around the world. All this emotional turmoil is for a show that is now one of the most-watched shows in HBO’s history, surpassing the record held by fan and critic favourite, The Sopranos. 

It’s a mix of emotions I am familiar with.  After season 3’s Rains of Castemere (ep. 9),  the Red Wedding scene left me boiling over with rage after characters whose arcs had been lovingly detailed were snuffed out in a way that was shocking, abrupt and very, very bloody.

It was a trick he employed again in the last televised episode (season 4,  episode 8, titled The Mountain And The Viper).

But I also felt intense admiration for Martin as a creator.

This was someone who not only believed in the phrase “kill your darlings” - an admonition to writers to never hold dear their most precious ideas and characters - he took it to new heights.

Here was an Agatha Christie killing off Hercule Poirot in the third book, or a J.K Rowling throwing Ron Weasley down a well in the second novel and slipping Hermione Granger a poisoned cup in the fourth.

Martin is a capricious god, a creator who is as vicious as he is loving - just as a deity would, in one of the fictional religions that exist on the continents of Essos and Westeros, the fabled lands in his epic fantasy book series, A Song Of Ice And Fire.

Why do people turn out in such large numbers for a show that drives them nuts? If it continually does to them what Lucy does to Charlie Brown when he tries to kick the football, why do they come back?

Perhaps we fans have Stockholm Syndrome. The show, when it is good, is extremely good.

The power games, the slippery morals, lavish sets, and most of all, the tone of decadence that the sex and gore brings that tells us we are watching something made for grownups (these things are important in epic fantasy, a genre that is associated with nerdy types fond of playing Ye Olde Englande dress-up).

When Martin and show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss rubs our noses in the misery they have created, I catch myself thinking that they do it because they have my best interests at heart.

It's a temporary pain for a future reward. Perhaps in this series, as in life, all will be made clear in the conclusion, and it will all be worth it. Former fans of the sci-fi drama Lost (2004 - 2010), however, know full well that such faith can often go unrewarded.

But in the final measure, those who hate the trio of Martin, Benioff and Weiss for breaking their hearts over and over might be overthinking the issue. The simple reason for Martin’s destructive tendencies might simply be that he did not know that fans of the show would become so attached to them when he wrote their arcs. Martin might have been exercising his rather bleak world-view - that the good die young, but first they must be made to suffer  - but he is too canny a storyteller to subvert genre traditions entirely.

That we became so invested in now-dead characters of (spoilers ahead) Eddard, Catelyn, Robb and Talisa Stark, Khal Drogo and most recently, Oberyn Martell was that they were fleshed out so charismatically by their actors. Michelle Fairley (playing Catelyn Stark) and Pedro Pascal (Oberyn Martell) gave exceptional performances.

So far, the story in the cable show has been largely faithful to the source material. All deaths, as penned by Martin, have so far been reflected on screen. But in Hollywood, nothing is ever set in stone.

Take this case study: In the current editions of The Walking Dead comics series, major characters seen in the first season of its television adaptation are now dead or partially crippled.

But on television, they are still around, alive and well. And it is also true to say that the show has dropped in quality from that first season, both in the standard of the storytelling and in production values. There are several reasons for why this has happened - the firing of producer Frank Darabont is one, the slashing of its budget is another rumoured cause - but the fact that the show now seems to respond to fan feedback in pursuit of ratings is another.

As a fan, I might not want some characters to die. But I hope that The Game Of Thrones, especially when the series overruns the novels, will continue to ignore my anguished screams. As The Walking Dead proves, giving me what I want is a terrible course of action.

johnlui@sph.com.sg

Register here to get free digital access to The Straits Times until Aug 9, 2015.
Comments