Nonlinear Viewing and the Pleasures of Making Meaning
This is the third of my three promised blog posts for the Write-A-Thon for Boston 826. Please sponsor me in this fundraiser for an incredible nonprofit writing and tutoring center serving Boston Public Schools.
I promised myself I wouldn’t write about “Game of Thrones.”
But since it’s all I’ve been watching the past few weeks and I have a blog post due, I have decided to write about my experience of viewing the show. I began watching it in the middle of season two (episode 6, to be exact), watched to the end of season three, then went back and watched season one. This way of watching the show (which was not deliberate, for the record) prompted me to think about how we read and understand texts.
I am fairly certain that what I will describe here has been explained by narrative theorists, structuralists, and/or reader-response theorists. But frankly, as I’m not in grad school any more and am writing this for my own pleasure, I am not going to bother looking it up. If you want to tell me about theorists who discuss these ideas, feel free. I also am not going to catch up on three years of internet writing about “Game of Thrones” either, so deal with it.
Requisite SPOILER ALERT: This post contains plot spoilers for “Game of Thrones.” It discusses the show as if you have either watched it, already know the plot, or don’t care about spoilers. It also discusses the concept of what it means to have a plot spoiled in the first place.
First, let me quickly say that I was always skeptical of the show before watching it, am not a fan of the fantasy genre, and did not read the books. I had a vague sense that it was like Lord of the Rings, but with a lot more misogyny. Predictably, given that I don’t like Lord of the Rings (don’t hurt me!), and I certainly do not like misogyny, I was convinced the show was not for me.
Perhaps more importantly, I already knew about two of the major plot twists of the show, which happen at the ends of seasons 1 and 3. I didn’t know the details of the season three twist, but I knew the basic gist. Hearing about these plot twists made me a bit more interested in the show, but also made me think I had missed the boat. After all, now that I knew what was going to happen, I figured it was too late to start watching anyway.
My husband began watching the show while I was out of town, and even offered to stop watching until I got home, but I declined. One day I came home from work while he was watching and I got sucked in, despite my initial negative impression—in the span of the first 20 minutes or so of watching, I witnessed two women use their bodies to manipulate men, which initially confirmed all my negative assumptions about the show.
What exactly sucked me in? I can’t say for sure because I am reconstructing this from my memory, but I think part of what sucked me in was the fact that one of the first scenes I saw featured Ygritte, who as many of you should already know, is played by the actress who played the first maid to escape “Downton Abbey,” the one who learned how to type so she could leave service and enter a different type of service—I mean, secretarial work. Why would this suck me in? Well, I hadn’t seen her in a while, yet I recognized her immediately, but then she would turn a different way and I would question myself—was it really her? It’s not that I was so invested in that “DA” maid character, but I wanted to see if I was right. So I kept watching, but of course that meant I was watching the scenes between the ones she was in, and then I couldn’t help but become curious about what was going on. And then who should show up but Charles Dance, who plays the evil Tywin Lannister but to me is better known as the evil Tulkinghorn from “Bleak House,” but I actually couldn’t place him for some time—I only knew instinctively that he was evil and had been on a Masterpiece Theatre production. So at first what was going on was not a game of thrones but a game of, “now what other British costume drama do I know you from?” Which is one of my favorite games.
Obviously, it’s nothing new for actors to go on and play other roles, nor is it uncommon to cast familiar actors on purpose; in fact, the entire economy of Hollywood has been based on the assumption you would seek out familiar actors since the silent years, when actors first became movie stars. But of course, it’s a little different with television, because if these are bit players, you didn’t show up on purpose to see them. Instead what happens is you bring a set of associations with them: Tywin/Tulkinhorn is evil, I already know that, and Ygritte/typing maid is a spunky, likable lass who does things her own way. So already I’m getting the feel of things, right?
So now that I’m in the world a bit, I need to figure out what’s going on. I actually think the first character who hooked me—and I very much doubt I’m alone in this—was Arya. This is partially because I had NO idea what was going on with her at that point in the story. My husband kept trying to explain it, but it didn’t make sense—she had been posing as a boy, but I didn’t know why, and she wasn’t anymore, and Tywin doesn’t know she’s a Stark, and she only has one more death wish left—HUH? The mystery of it drew me further in; I wanted to understand her motivations and history and future.
I was rather pleased with myself that, with the exception of Arya, I thought everything else was easy to figure out. I was really patting myself on the back about it. But now, looking back on it, I know how much time it really took to put all the pieces together. Sure, some characters, such as Robb and Catelyn Stark—were pretty easy to figure out. But some of the smaller or more complicated characters took much longer to figure out because of how completely out of context they were.
To make meaning, I had to do what we all have to do when we read or view a film or show: I needed to assess the elements of each scene—Who are these people? What is their relationship to each other? What are they doing or discussing in this scene? Then, as I watched further, I could put each scene in context: Ok, now this is happening because this other thing happened earlier. For each new scene with a character I had seen before, I needed to remember the earlier events in order to assess any new information that was introduced. And of course, because the information is visual, I could only base my understanding of the characters on how they reacted to other characters and/or their environment. In other words, context is everything, and memory is constantly being engaged when you read or watch something, even though you are “moving forward” in time.
Because I wasn’t introduced to the characters in a linear fashion, I had to work harder than the viewer who began at the beginning and had the events presented linearly. But at the same time, my struggles lay bare the cognitive work that goes on even when we begin at the beginning. What’s more, it was incredibly fun. If I had watched from the beginning, I think it still would have been fun because I would just be enjoying the show, but watching the show out of order increased my consciousness of how fun it is to try to figure out what’s going on in a text.
And I do think that viewers have to struggle at least a little, at least at first, to follow what’s going on with this particular show. Whatever else I might think of it—and I have a lot of opinions—I can no longer dismiss it as simplistic. I mean, I guess it’s possible to show up each week and just watch for the boobs and the blood, of which there is a-plenty of both, but surely there is an easier way to get your thrills if that’s what you want. This show has a great number of characters, and while it may not be terribly difficult to keep the main characters straight, just the fact that you can’t point to a single protagonist reveals it to be more complex than many television shows, and of course, the multitudinous minor characters often play important or unexpected roles.
So, what of the spoilers? As you may have guessed, having an idea of what would happen did not ruin my enjoyment of the show, though it did change it. In all fairness, while I did not know exactly what was going to happen with the red wedding or to whom, the name, to my mind, said it all: I knew that two families would join at a wedding that would turn out to be a massacre in which only the hosts would survive. A few minutes into watching the show, I saw Robb and Talisa talking on the battlefield and, while I didn’t know for certain, all indications pointed to these two as victims. For one thing, love makes you vulnerable; for another, broken promises are clearly going to come back to haunt you in a world like this. My husband, who, despite our talking about it last year, had forgotten about the red wedding, and even he knew Talisa was going to die. When they married in secret, I briefly thought I had guessed wrong, but the specter of the bridge and the broken promise (which I had not yet witnessed being made) soon re-emerged as a new threat.
I was not going to feel surprise, then. This enjoyable reaction was replaced with a different feeling: impending dread. One of the awful enjoyments of the third season was the molasses pace at which the characters drew toward that wedding; my stomach was in knots for several episodes. My biggest fear, which I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have had if I didn’t know what would happen, was that Arya would get to the wedding on time. Rather than the plot twist being ruined, I found an alternate enjoyment in the anticipation of a scene that had been hinted at so much. And of course, as an added pleasure, when I finally went back to watch season 1, I was able to see more clearly how certain things had been set up; for instance, what Maester Aemon says to Jon Snow about choosing between duty and love seems much more directed at his brother and father than at him.
All leads to why, even though having the plot “spoiled” takes away the specific pleasure of surprise, it does not ruin the enjoyment of the text. Because while there is enjoyment in surprise, it cannot be the only enjoyment—how could that be possible? And while a major strength of some shows, such as “Game of Thrones,” lies in the idea that the rug can be pulled out from under us at any time, this is not its only strength, nor is it the primary experience of viewership. Although what happens is important and pleasurable—and arguably part of what gets us hooked—it is the why and the how that keeps us going.
And this is a show that could arguably be viewed as hinging entirely on what happens, not why or how. As my supersmart friend Anne Moore points out, serial television is structured around cliffhangers in way that encourages binging. Even given this observation, though, the “Game of Thrones” cliffhanger structure seems aggressive. After all, when a show ends its first episode by having an adult character push a ten-year-old boy from a tower after he witnesses incestuous sex, it’s safe to say that cliffhangers (or falls?) and plot twists and the endings of episodes are vital to the identify of the show. And yet, here I was, getting sucked in despite knowing about several of the most aggressive of these twists.
Honestly, the excessive hue and cry over spoilers and alerting us to them has gotten old. A show that can suck you in when you start in the middle must be doing something right with its storytelling. The middle is the story. It’s where we spend our time. We do not read or watch in order to get to the end; we do so to stay in the middle for as long as we can, or as long as we enjoy the text.
After all, we cannot remember our beginnings, and our endings are both unknown and unknowable to us, as well as something we are staving off to the best of our abilities. It’s the middle where we make meaning.