Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Dark Side of Sexposition: “Breaker of Chains” and the Lannisters

There is something perhaps morbidly fitting that Game of Thrones, the show that appears to have given rise to the term sexposition in TV criticism would be the one to take the concept to an area that is at once troubling, a betrayal of character and, quite simply, outdated storytelling and characterisation tactics. Now, much has already been written on the rape of Cersei Lannister in “Breaker of Chains” that can be described, quite simply, as controversial, from the aspects including the deviations from the source material (in this case George R. R. Martin’s novel A Storm of Swords), the role of women in Westeros and, of course, rape itself. I won’t be focusing on any of those; while I of course agree that they’re important issues that should be discussed, I’m not quite sure I’d be able to speak particularly eloquently on. One of the things that interests me most about that scene in “Breaker of Chains” is the way in which it has used outdated tropes in order to create characterisation.

For those who don’t know, sexposition is the idea of divulging expository plot and character passages during or in the proximity of sexual situations. There’s plenty of this in Game of Thrones, from Littlefinger’s monologue about his childhood and love for Catelyn Stark to pretty much every scene that involves Oberyn Martell (including one in “Breaker of Chains.”). Now, while Game of Thrones is the show that seems to have caused the coining of the term, it’s certainly not the first show to use it, between the strip club in The Sopranos and the brothel in Deadwood it would perhaps be fair to say that HBO has something of a penchant for sexposition. As a trope, sexposition of course has it’s own problems, from the pointless objectification of the background characters involved in the scenes to the fact it is, given it feels the need to use explicit and rather heavy-handed exposition, quite simply, bad storytelling. However, the problems of sexposition aren’t the focus here, but are instead a jumping off point to discuss the ways in which the rape of Cersei functions more as a plot device than anything else.

Before what could politely be called the unpleasantness of “Breaker of Chains,” I think it’s fair to say that lots of people were rooting for Jaime Lannister, between the season three episodes “Kissed By Fire” and “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” he was on track for a fascinating redemption arc made all the more compelling by the fact that he is not only the infamous Kingslayer, but also a Lannister. What the adaptation of Game of Thrones does in a way that the books don’t, and I must admit I have no idea quite why this is done, is create a much more clear divide between heroes and villains. In season one, for instance, Eddard is clearly the hero and the Lannisters clearly the villains, Dany, with her myriad titles has always been painted as a hero throughout, and the opposite can be said of the late Joffery Baratheon, in that he is more monstrous and outright villainous on screen than he is within Martin’s original pages. By proxy, this has always made Cersei a somewhat more sympathetic character than she is originally written as being, here she is a long-suffering mother who watches her child become a monster; now, it’s a compelling arc, but it’s perhaps the root of some characterisation that is questionable both for it’s departure from the source material and how antiquated it is. After Joffery’s death in “The Lion and the Rose” fans everywhere rejoiced, and after all, why wouldn’t they? The savage boy king, the main villain of the series, had been killed off. But what this does is raise an interesting question: where does the show go next?

Given that Joffery is no longer among the living in Game of Thrones, it’s safe to say that, based on the hero/villain duality they’d created, that a new villain was necessary. Now, while there are plenty of characters who are viable to don that crown, from Melisandre to Mance, the issue with them is that they’re not really close enough to King’s Landing which, for all of the show’s geographical branching and dozens of plotlines, has always been the heart of the action. So, once again, that villainous gaze falls upon the Lannisters. Tywin couldn’t be the villain because, for all of his faults, he’s not as awful a person as he seems, say what you will for his grooming Tommen to be king all of five feet from dead predecessor, Tywin recognised that Joffery was a monster and that it’s not something that King’s Landing should face again; it’s not unreasonable to assume that Tywin, in spite of his hunger for his family’s glory and perhaps, in spite of himself, much like Varys, “serves the realm.” Tyrion is of course out of the question, he’s just not a villain and everyone knows that. This leaves only two Lannisters in King’s Landing who could become the next villain, Jaime and Cersei Lannister.

The issue with using either of them is that it would be a betrayal of their characters up to this point to suddenly turn them into villains, between the stepping stones for Jaime’s redemption to the power-hungry but still somehow sympathetic Cersei. All that besides, would it really be fair to turn Cersei into an out-and-out villain moments after the death of her son? Probably not, and that’s where the cheap, lazy and – for many reasons – downright offensive use of sexual violence enters the equation.

The use of sexual assault in “Breaker of Chains” is many things, but the one I’m focusing on here is it’s antiquated status as a means of storytelling and characterisation. The use of sex, and rape in particular as a way of punishing women is an age old adage that spans Hitchcock, slashers and pretty much everything else. It wouldn’t exactly be a stretch of the imagination to say that Cersei being raped is some bizarre punishment for her having given birth to Joffery in the first place given that the scene in question takes place literally right beside the dead king’s grave. In punishing Cersei through this absurd plot device of an assault, Jaime is also made to be monstrous, because, to put it simply, he rapes her and rape is a monstrous thing, considered almost unfathomable in it’s evil in society, and rightly so (even though I won’t be focusing on perhaps the more societal implications of treating rape in such a way, I feel I should again reiterate that they’re issues that should be talked about and probably have been by people much more eloquent than I.). Now, this of course goes against the source material in terms of both adapting the scene (which is disturbing but consensual) and Jaime’s character; even though the far-reaching implications of the scene are of course yet to be shown, it invalidates his redemption and immediately turns him into a villain. And as well as punishing Cersei, the scene creates an understandable sympathy for her as a victim, which again feels like, for all it’s other problems, bad writing. A perhaps fitting parallel would be the Bates Motel pilot episode “First You Dream, Then You Die,” when Norma Bates is raped by a home invader who she proceeds to kill in self defence. It’s difficult not to simply say that the attacker had it coming, because we at once sympathise with her and hate him, so when looking at this dynamic in relation to “Breaker of Chains,” Cersei becomes the object of sympathy where Jaime becomes the object of hated. Unfortunately, and again, rather morbidly, this scene serves the purpose it needs to within the version of Westeros presented to us on TV, one with heroes and villains where the villains are pure evil (Joffery’s most evil moment perhaps being the execution of the prostitutes that we see as Littlefingers informs in “The Climb” that ‘Chaos isn’t a pit. It’s a ladder.’), and so, in the wake of Joffery’s death, not only is another Lannister being groomed to be king in his stead, but another monster seems to be prepared to step to the fore.

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Is This the Death of the Anti-Hero?

Between the season three finale of Homeland and the final episode of Breaking Bad, TV dramas seem to be letting their anti-heroes drop like flies. And since, many moons ago when the Sopranos began what we like to call the TV revolution with the psychological depth it gave to all of it’s characters, but particularly the anti-hero that is at the heart of the show, conflicted mob boss Tony Soprano. And so, now that the anti-heroes that have began to show what it is that makes the TV revolution what it is are being killed off, the real question becomes, what’s next?

I think that the next natural step in the TV revolution – if we’re still calling it that – is for the focus to become even more centred on female characters. From The Sopranos onwards, women have been integral to this new wave of TV drama, from Carmela Soprano and Dr. Melfi to Ruth and Claire Fisher in Six Feet Under, they’ve always been there and they’ve always been important, but they’ve always been a step or so away from the spotlight. Even in Homeland, which very much revolves around Carrie, much of the dramatic action – and more questionable decisions based around the writing of the show and characterisation of Carrie – has been linked to Brody. Of course, that’s not the case based on where Homeland left off at the end of it’s most recent season, and, as important as Saul is, he is and will in theory remain to be a supporting role rather than stepping into the story’s centre with Carrie.

This female focus, this idea of a female character either leading the show alone or along with a male character, appears to be a little more common over the last few years, between female led legal dramas like Damages and The Good Wife, and the twin-lead dynamic that lies at the very heart of Masters of Sex, the idea of the anti-hero as we knew it, which is to say a conflicted, morally questionable man balancing multiple lives like Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan and Nicholas Brody, appears to be changing. I suppose it’s something like the shift in the focus of tragic drama, between the great men of Shakespeare, kings like Lear and Richard, to the women of Jacobean tragedies, the eponymous Duchess of Malfi, or Beatrice in The Changeling. It seems like a natural progression now for women to take centre stage.

And this impacts much of the dynamic that lies at the heart of the conflicts that these characters have; where the men perhaps lead double lives (William Masters does, for instance), there’s something about the women that is more about the elements of themselves that they see in and want or don’t want to hand over to others, like Elizabeth’s relationship with her daughter in The Americans or elements of herself that Patty sees in Ellen in Damages. Here it’s more a case of mirroring than doubling that’s important. However, it is worth noting that, much like Masters, her cohort in the sex study that drives the first season of Masters of Sex, Virginia is also leading a double life of sorts, balancing work and home life, particularly once her relationship with Masters gets, to put it mildly, complicated. This seems effective in that it not only allows Virginia’s character to develop, but in relation to the notion of anti-heroes, in her sharing plots that tended to be given to male characters, we see both the way in which female leads are sharing the spotlight with their male co-stars, in doing so it also shows the ways in which anti-heroes and TV dramas more generally are shaking off the old stories and dynamics. Along with this, since the anti-heroes of yore have begun to die off, there is a tonal difference in the shows, especially, it seems, the ones that have female characters near or at their core. Masters of Sex, for instance, which could very much be the show that ushers in a new wave of characterisations, isn’t afraid to actually have jokes, to lighten the mood of it’s subject matter, it doesn’t seem compelled to be crushingly bleak or perpetually morose simply because it’s a TV drama in the 21st century.

Of course, it’s worth noting that, in spite of the passing of Walter White and Sergeant Brody, the anti-hero isn’t officially “dead” by any means; Ray Donovan seems to be trying with all of it’s might to essentially be a West Coast version of The Sopranos, and Game of Thrones has more pessimistic, morally conflicted men than you can shake a stick at, but it’s not just the shows that are starting that seem to be impacting the landscape of TV (with Masters of Sex starting it’s second season in a few months), but also the ones that are ending. Of course, Breaking Bad finished recently, next season spells the end for both Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men, and of course Homeland needs to restructure itself in the wake of the events in ‘The Star,’ so it seems that more than anything, it seems that there is a fast approaching void that will need to be filled, and it seems that, rather than simply rehashing the same old tropes that have been used in varying shades for the last fifteen years, the things that carry the banner as these shows take their final bow seem to be taking the form of an entirely different beast.

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The Truth Hurts: How HBO’s Girls is Growing Up

It seems very fitting to me that Girls, HBO’s much-discussed comedy/drama about the exploits of a group of female college graduates (and another way of looking at the postgraduate ennui that appears in the likes of Kicking and Screaming, Tiny Furniture and Frances Ha). Much of the discussion around the show has been around the frank way it treats sexuality, and the unapologetic narcissism of central character Hannah Horvath. One thing that seems to have been absent from the discussion of the show is just how well the development and what can perhaps be described as maturing of the narrative mirrors the situation of the characters within it.

The three seasons the show has had thus far seem to present different outlooks on the world that these characters inhabit, but all of them seem to spin around the orbit of one thing: Hannah. Season one is very much what could be called the world according to Hannah, and at the core of her development throughout this season is establishing her psychologically and presenting us more with how she views the world as opposed to how she fits into it. I mean, the first season even has an episode (‘Hannah’s Diary’) where the crux of the dramatic action comes from an observation made in the diary that gives the episode it’s title. If that’s not a way of making us intimately familiar with a character’s views on the world and the people around them, I don’t know what is. The second season seems to present a more introspective point of view, closer to Hannah according to the world than the world according to Hannah. Although this introspection reaches it’s peak in the masterful episode ‘One Man’s Trash,’ the rest of the season looks very unapologetically at the impact Hannah’s actions have on those around her, seemingly exposing her to the idea of consequences for the first time, with the episode ‘Bad Friend,’ in which Hannah takes cocaine for a freelance piece, ends with a heated discussion between Hannah and Marnie about which of them is the bad friend, as well as ‘It’s Back’ and ‘On All Fours’ forcing Hannah to confront her uneven mental state when her OCD resurfaces.

These ideas of both Hannah’s views on the world and then, later, the world’s views on Hannah, lead very neatly onto the third season which seems to focus on, if anything, Hannah trying to fit into the “real world.” In season three, she even goes so far as to get a job writing ads for Vogue; not that it lasts too long, given that she quits out of fear that it will crush her creatively, but here we see a Hannah willing to compromise, doing something that is expected of her. Perhaps the most important aspect of the show, and Hannah with it, growing up, is the way her relationship with Adam is shown. Early in the first season, their relationship could be described as being friends-with-benefits on a good day, given Hannah says “when I’m with him he’s so real and so present, and then he seems to disappear and I feel like I invented him” (I’m paraphrasing a little, but that’s the crux of the quote) and perhaps what is ostensibly “grown up” about their relationship is that it changes and grows quite organically. Amidst the chaos of the opening of the second season, their relationship ends and their friendship becomes rocky and uneasy until they’re reunited in ‘Together,’ the season two finale. And it’s during season three that their relationship is at it’s most interesting, as well as being the best barometer of what I suppose you could call the maturity of the show, going on to illustrate the title of this piece; that the truth, in fact, hurts.

As has been mentioned, season three features what I suppose could be called Hannah’s unsuccessful attempt to join the workforce whereas, by contrast Adam manages to do so in glorious fashion, being cast in a Broadway revival of Major Barbara. Now, while there’s plenty of maturity in other places in this season, they sometimes seem to fall prey to that haphazardness that is effective for Girls sometimes, but seems now to be a bit out of place amongst certain plotlines; Jessa’s rehab story is interesting, although the sudden return of Richard E. Grant’s character that throws her into a downward spiral is so much less than the character deserves. To me, it’s when the focus of the season shifts towards Hannah and Adam’s relationship, the last “act” of season three I suppose you could call it, from Flo to Two Plane Rides, the focus becomes their relationship and what it says about the two of them, both together and as individuals.

The relationship between Hannah and Adam manages to teeter into a crisis without exploding into juvenile drama or anything too haphazard, it isn’t suddenly thrown at the wall like Jessa’s rehab/recovery/relapse story, it’s allowed to go to interesting places both new and old, and it’s the old ones that are the most interesting.

It’s near the end of season three, most specifically during ‘Role-Play’ when Hannah and Adam are forced to confront their relationship and particularly what it means to them as individuals; their compatibility and stability is questioned in an inspired way, during the sexual role play that gives the episode it’s name. The aforementioned sexual frankness that seemed to come as a necessary discussion point during the early years of Girls is once again making an appearance here, but when the show looks at sex in the same disassociated, angry way that it did in season one, it’s critical about it now. One of the first times we see Adam in season one – in either ‘Pilot’ or ‘Vagina Panic,’ I think it’s the latter – he’s having sex with Hannah and decides to proclaim he found her “on the street” and that she was “a junkie.” She catches on soon enough, but in the third season, when she’s worried that their relationship is getting stale, largely due to the time Adam is spending working on Major Barbara, she initiates a role-playing situation and, to understate it slightly, it goes awry. Borrowing a blonde wig and Marnie’s apartment, Hannah puts on the façade of a married woman who wants to be rather violently taken by Adam. Once Adam is convinced, it seems to be going well enough and there does seem to be a sort of spark that Hannah feared was missing, bur once they make it to Marnie’s apartment, things take a decidedly more sombre, especially when Hannah changes their sexual dynamic on the fly, which doesn’t sit well with Adam. It’s Adam who ends the tryst, coming clean about the root of their more aggressive sexual past, saying that “fucking is what stopped [him] from drinking,” and that he doesn’t want to be distant from her when they have sex, he wants to be “there” with her.

This tension between what the two of them want individually from their relationship ripples throughout their scenes in the rest of the season, particularly in ‘I Saw You’ when Adam moves out to focus on rehearsals for the play. Hannah, who by now could probably be called a world renowned neurotic, panics a lot and tries to hang on to Adam and their relationship as much as she can. However, where the sting of the truth is really felt, and when the show is perhaps at it’s most mature is during the finale, ‘Two Plane Rides,’ when Hannah gets into a grad school writing workshop in Ohio, something that could of course help her progress by leaps and bounds creatively, and she decides to go. Hannah’s narcissism is of course well known, but here we see her doing something that is good for her, something she’s doing for herself, not to spite others. It may be a little too soon to say, but it appears that Hannah, and some of the others in the motley crew that make up the cast of Girls are all grown up.

 

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