This essay contains SPOILERS for Game of Thrones, season 6 episode 9x.
In this episode we see Jon Snow, the “good guy”, meet Ramsey Bolton, the horrible monster character in battle. The good guy’s army wins by last minute support by the knights of the Vale, and the bad guy is given a gruesome death at the mouths of his hounds, starved for seven days.
Viewers get giddy at the death of Ramsay, as Sansa, the girl he had raped and tortured gets her revenge. Finally the bad guy gets what he deserved…
Lets zoom in here. To call Ramsay “bad guy” is quite an understatement as he enjoys torturing and humiliating people for its sake. The books set him up as a terrible person, and the show goes much further, making him one of the main hated characters. He is cunning, clever, merciless and tortuous. All of this builds up towards the final scene where he is defeated.
So it seems like the audience has won. The people they root for got victorious and the bad guy got served. But not really.
The viewers got served. Of course Ramsay will eventually lose. This is the story which sells best. It is just entertainment. GRRM figured out that it is quite entertaining for people when they don’t know what will happen, so he engineered a plot in which the expected champion of the “good side” does not win (i.e. red wedding), and we are gradually let to simpatize with characters we hated before and to dislike characters we were rooting for.
That’s in the books. In the show,… it is business as usual. The show entertains by sticking to a plot. The story development is entertaining. The keyword is story. The show and the books are entertaining because they follow a story. And this constrains them. For there to be a story, there need to be a conflict, development and resolution. If they only include one or two of these parts, it wouldn’t be a complete story. And stories are what sell the books and get people to watch the show. Stories are entertainment.
I noticed a different type of “entertainment” in Hemingway’s stories. I was reading one of them, from his book “In our time”. In the story, based in a small Italian village after WWI, a German couple visits is recruited by a drunk old vet to go fishing out of season. As they get near the river, the couple gradually bails out. As a story, it is quite a shitty and boring story.
But what makes the story entertaining, is the emotional dynamic between the subjects. The couple had some quarrel during lunch which affects the tone with which they talk to each other. The old drunkard has different motivations - to live off of their generosity as a guide, instead of doing hard labor. There is a back-story which is only hinted about with clues. Reading the story again and again creates a fuller picture of the situation, and changes our interpretation.
Hemingway’s tale is entertaining because it is like a puzzle. What appears initially to be the story, is not the actual story by rather a camouflage of the sub-story. Getting to the sub-story is requires a bit of work from the reader, and could be quite strenuous, but then the view and the feeling is powerful and moving.
I still love watching “Game of Thrones”, even though Ramsay’s death didn’t have much of a sub-story. The quality of execution in the show is world-class. The acting is often phenomenal, and the story is captivating. I’m looking forward to the season finale this Sunday. I also love reading the books. They actually contain quite a bit of sub-story.
Looking for the sub-stories makes “Game of Thrones” and the whole ASOIAF series not just entertaining, but also transformative.