Game of Thrones, Girls and Mad Men

So, I finally got around to reading Ginia Bellafante’s April 14th review of The Game of Thrones “A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms” but only after I read Amy Radcliffe’s response to it on Tor.com, which should tell you something right there. I’d been warned about Bellafante’s review by a friend. He ran down the lowlights of the review for me, including her description of the series as “boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.”  Now that I’ve read the review, I see that Bellafante thinks the illicit sex scenes were “tossed in as a little something for the ladies.” This tells me two things: she’s never read George R.R Martin’s books and she probably has never seen a Bond film. (Gee, here I always thought that the sexy women and bedroom scenes were thrown into those for the “boys.” Guess I was wrong.) I won’t defend women who read epic fantasy here; that’s been ably done by Radcliffe in her rebuttal. Thank you, Amy Radcliffe and thank you, Tor.com.

I find it interesting that Bellafante opens her review by contrasting “Game of Thrones” to “Mad Men” in an effort to show how horrible it is that HBO has spent so much money on this fantasy series that she—if I’m not reading it wrong—hates. Hmmm. “Mad Men.” Isn’t that the soap opera-like show that has large number of principle characters and serves up a lot of confusion in the name of no larger or really relevant idea beyond notions that the advertising business is ugly, families are insidious and power is hot? Oh, excuse me, I’ve almost directly quoted Bellafonte’s rant about “Game of Thrones” except for changing a few words (“advertising business” for “war” ) and leaving out a few. The few I left out were “sketchily fleshed-out” before “notions.” Considering that we’ve seen four seasons of “Mad Men” maybe that’s why it doesn’t seem sketchy?

To set my record straight, I think “Mad Men” is a great series. I loved the look of it from the first episode. I was eager to see how all the principle characters’ stories would be interwoven and set against the background of larger world events. The series has great costumes, attention to detail in the sets, excellent cinematography that helps to reveal mood and underlying tension. The same can be said of the first episode of “Game of Thrones.” I’ll have to see it “Thrones” lives up to that standard through this first season before I call it a great series. It does have one big advantage over “Mad Men” though—strong women characters who aren’t hobbled by the social shackles of the sixties. Yes, within the sixties ad biz world we’ve got Joan, played by Christina Hendricks, and Peggy, played by Elisabeth Moss, but watching women struggle to work within a male dominated business is not as satisfying as seeing a woman wield power from a throne or take charge of an army of  Dothraki warriors. One of the things this girl isn’t sold on is all that illicit sex. Will there be too many sex scenes thrown in, trading story time for ratings grabs? I’m hoping the balance will tip in favor of character, action and complex political intrigue.

But then, I’m one of those girls who don’t join book clubs because those I’ve run into tend to select novels about broken marriages, abusive relationships, troubled childhoods—and nothing else. When I read for leisure, I like to be taken away from the troubles that can drag us down in real life. I want suspense, romance, fantasy, science fiction. Would I want to discuss The Hobbit in a book club (an idea that seems to confound Bellafonte)? It wouldn’t be my first choice because there’s not that much meat to the story. It’s not The Lord of the Rings, which does have a lot to discuss but it’s a triology. And therein lies the nerd book club dilemma: most of the good stuff is very, very long, so not good book club fodder. It is, however, great stuff for re-reads and online discussions. (Thank you again Tor.com.)

To be fair, Bellafonte is probably just suffering from genre prejudice, which I’ll define as an imagination-limiting tendency to confine one’s reading to mainstream and “literary” novels, with an inclination to denigrate any other kind of writing. If “Game of Thrones” was a series set in Medieval England, would she have the same problems with the large cast of characters? If part of the story took place in Rome and the actors spoke in Italian, seeing that it is a language “for which we already have a dictionary” unlike the Dothraki language of Martin’s story, would that be okay with her? (Tip to Bellafonte: think of house “Lannister” as “Lancaster” and pretend it’s English history.) Her complaint about HBO looking “cheap” when it “ventures away from its instincts for real-world sociology” tells me that she can’t see truths about the “real world” in a story unless they are told in contemporary settings. In the real world we are dealing with problems caused by war, unsettling family dynamics, and problems caused by people thinking power is hot, aren’t we?

Whereas I see an added point of interest in weaving elements of fantasy into such a story, Bellafonte can’t seem to see the real world issues for the fantasy. From her review, it seems that she has trouble getting past the swords, strange languages, and strange cultures. Getting caught up in the surface details, she shows that she’s unfamiliar with the genre of epic fantasy. Then, she veers to the other extreme: digging in too deep to demystify the popularity of Martin’s story.  She latches on to the unusual climate of the fantasy world and concludes that “Game of Thrones” is “a vague global-warming horror story.” Huh. Wonder if she sees “The Wizard of Oz” that way, too? Could the Emerald City be the first example of a green economy? Goes to show how different two girls can be. I’m attracted to the series by surface details (swords, scenery, Sean Bean) but I see the deeper story as one of politics and survival in a war torn nation. The long winter and impending threat of terrifying inhabitants invading from the north beyond the wall? Hmmm…let’s see. Perhaps: the eternal battle between light and darkness. Or maybe this: a long winter and impending threat of terrifying inhabitants invading from the north beyond the wall—otherwise known as an important story driving plot point.

While Bellafonte hungers “for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary,” I hunger for more series where I expand my world by learning new languages and expand my perception of real world sociology by observing its machinations in an unfamiliar setting.  As a side note, because of her review, I am starting to have a craving to join her book club (if she belongs to one) just so I can “stand up in indignation” and refuse “to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone” agrees to read “The Warded Man” by Peter V. Brett, no doubt another novel Bellafonte would find too confusing.

For those of you who do like Game of Thrones, there’s tons of cool info on the official HBO site.

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