All fun and games, until someone loses his head

I understand that the following might get me defenestrated, decapitated, poisoned, disembowelled and/or otherwise treated harshly – but I think that Game of Thrones is overrated. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great series with a cast that well night perfect, characters that are engaging, production values that are amazing, complex storylines that are riveting and setpieces that are stunning. It’s head (not Ned’s, obviously) and shoulders above a lot of TV. Nevertheless, on a list of favourite series it wouldn’t make it into my Top 5: I’d take The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad and The Wire over it any day, to name just a few.

Thing is, for all its strengths the series is pretty much entirely about itself. It has little to say about our world. I’m not denying the series all relevance, but for all the cruelty and political intrigue of the world it depicts it is still escapism. Does it need to be anything more? Most emphatically not – but it makes the superlative praise the series gets ring somewhat hollow.

Hmm... My shoelaces are untied.

My impression is that because the series is brutal, because it kills our darlings, people implicitly see it as something more than escapist entertainment. “This is what the world is really like – cruel, amoral and swift to kick you in the privates, steal your silver and stab you in the spleen!” Except I doubt that most of its fans live in a world in any real sense that is like Westeros. Does Game of Thrones have anything much to say about power, responsibility, pragmatism and honour in a world of shifting alliances and uncertain motives? It probably does, although not all that much beyond what makes an intriguing story. Then again, it doesn’t need to – but its fans sometimes behave as if the series is completely new and does things that haven’t been tried before.

What puzzles me most is how Game of Thrones is almost universally hailed, yet HBO’s earlier series Rome barely made it to the end of season 2. In so many ways, Rome is an amazingly close precursor to the sprawling Westerosiad. Sex and violence? Check. Political intrigue? Check. Exotic locales? Check. Moral ambiguity? Check. Ciarán Hinds, Indira Varma, Tobias Menzies? Check, check and check again. (We’re still waiting for Ray Stevenson to make it to Westeros and for Kevin McKidd to be saved from his Seattle day job by a crazed, bomb-wielding, suicidal plane crash-cum-zombie apocalypse.) In terms of format, tone, characters, visual identity and, obviously, Nipple Count (and no, that’s not a character on the X-rated Sesame Street spin-off), the two series are very similar. Certainly, there are no ice zombies and dragons in Rome, but is that what makes Game of Thrones a success whereas the earlier series floundered? When people praise the series’ complexity, its characters and the world it evokes, are they actually saying that dragons, ice wights and boobs are cool? Or was the world not yet ready for a series of this kind when Rome was first aired?


There’s something about about the way the internet has embraced Game of Thrones that recalls self-perpetuating feedback loops. People don’t just get excited about the latest episode, they get excited about the latest round of YouTube videos depicting fan reactions. Watch total strangers scream at their TVs as Prince Fringfrang of House Shmoodle gets his arms torn clean off! Controversial scenes? Check out the clickbait: Why women like The Walking Dead better than Game of Thrones! (Not a joke, that one…). There’s something performative to the fan hype, as if people think they’ll become more interesting if they’ve got a video of themselves shrieking at Ned Stark’s decapitation or if they’ve got a blog post about what people on the internet say about-

Okay, gotcha. I’m feeding on, and into, the hype machine as much as everyone else. And who am I to tell the internet that it’s overrating its latest darling, especially if I then go and wax gastronomical about Hannibal after posting my own clickbait? So, to close this meandering post: if any fans of Game of Thrones are still reading this, I’m not telling you to stop enjoying the show or talk about it. But if you get bored waiting nine months for season 5, do check out Rome, especially season 1. You might enjoy it. And you won’t have to worry about book readers spoiling next episode… just pesky historians. Just don’t enter “does caesar” into the Google search window, lest the auto-complete function ruins it for you.

Payne Killer (part 2)

This post follows from my previous meanderings on Max Payne. For those who have not played Max Payne 3, beware: there will be spoilers.

While I am not an outright fan of explicit violence in modern media, I’m not particularly squeamish either. I have no interest whatsoever in the gore extravaganza of much modern horror, but neither am I put off by the viscera of some of Tarantino’s more recent offerings, and some of the TV series (e.g. Rome or Game of Thrones) I’ve enjoyed most over the last couple of years don’t skimp on the red gushing stuff.

And yet, Max Payne 3 almost made me switch off the game, not just once but twice, due to the brutality it depicts.

And this is in no way an indictment of the game.

Max Payne 3 is a brutal game – and more than any shooter I’ve played it does a remarkably horrid job of showing what bullets do to bodies. Does the game revel in showing exit wounds? I think I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t – MP3 does not present its violence with the frat boy, fist-pump glee of other games, but it has a fascination for showing the damage done, both to people and to interior (and exterior) decorating, in slow motion. So much so that checking out some of the videos on YouTube makes me queasy – less with the game than with the Beavis and Butthead-ish tone of the video description and comments.

But it’s not so much seeing the carnage I’m authoring that made me wince, at least not after the first ten minutes or so. (There is definitely something numbing to seeing henchman after henchman dying horribly at the business end of my gun – and it’s this repetitiveness that’s a major flaw of the game in my opinion.) It’s two key scenes: in one, I finally find the beaten, bleeding trophy wife of a São Paolo business man earlier abducted by a favela gang, only to see one of the gangbangers put a bullet through her head. In another, the business man’s brother is covered with petrol and burnt alive. The game has previously shown the man as shallow, narcissistic and rather pathetic – but the way the game depicts his death got to me, and quite possibly more so than a similar scene would have in a film.

I don’t want to get into the question here of whether games are becoming too violent or whether people are desensitised to real-life violence and cruelty due to watching brutal films or playing violent games. That question is much bigger and deserves a longer discussion in a wider forum. What I’m interested in is this: why did these two scenes get to me to the extent where I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue playing (keeping in mind, as I’ve said, that I’m not all that squeamish)?

I think it’s this: games make a big thing of player agency – as gamers it’s our finger on the trigger, we decide who lives and who dies, it’s, like, interactive! – yet in practice our agency is always limited, it’s circumscribed in a hundred ways: by a game’s design, its user interface, our character’s abilities and, often frustratingly, by the story a game tells. You’re Superman while playing the game, you’re John McClane, you’re Neo – and then comes a pre-rendered sequence, and what’s pre-rendered as well is your impotence in the face of the great god, Plot. The villain jumps from the shadows and skewers your love interest with his great big sword. (I’ve never played Final Fantasy VII, but apparently this is one of the primal scenes of so many gamers into Japanese role-playing games… and I wonder whether the cod-Freudian subtext is as heavy when you’re actually playing.)

Many games use this in a frustrating way that feels like the program is cheating, in revenge for decades of players using hidden cheats and God modes to become invulnerable. Think you’re all-powerful, gamer? Take that! Ooh, that must’ve hurt! The two scenes in Max Payne 3 that I mentioned earlier (and there are others, although none as pointed) may have an element of this, but I think the game is being cleverer than that: Max Payne, from the first game onward, told a story about revenge and redemption. I’m not sure to what extent it manages the latter all that well, although there’s a lot of quasi-Noirish verbiage in the game about it – but especially Max Payne 3 never lets you forget that the revenge you’re effecting is finally hollow. Yes, you might get to kill hundreds of bad guys in bloody, bone-crunching ways, but Max’ loss is the constant foil through which the player views this revenge. For every henchman killed, for every villain stopped, Max’ wife and child is not a single bullet closer to being alive. For a game that’s entirely about revenge and redemption, it’s bleakly ironic that revenge is shown to be pointless and redemption all but impossible. Max Payne’s extended trauerarbeit (and I don’t think this is wankerish pseudo-analysis imposed on the game – every second line of dialogue is about Max’ ongoing, futile quest to find some sort of meaning in a life that’s had all meaning shot to hell), like the hundreds of painkillers he keeps popping, only serves to dull his pain momentarily.

I’m not saying that Max Payne 3 is a deep, philosophical treatment of mourning, revenge and the futility of redemption – but it does address these issues within the rules it has set up for itself… and, like Rockstar’s earlier Red Dead Redemption (although my vote still goes to RDR for doing more interesting, complex things with the theme) it goes a long way to disabuse the player of this crazy idea that just because he’s got his finger on the trigger he can make everything all right.

Farewell to Oz

We managed to finish two long works recently – first Don Quixote (I’m convinced that most people didn’t read past page 150, since almost every single reference you read or hear is to what happens in the first fifth of the novel), and then Oz, the HBO prison (melo)drama.

The series is a prototype for so many later HBO gems, The Sopranos and The Wire just two of them. It pioneered the network’s trademark adult style, with lashings of violence and sex. Its characters were often nuanced, always ambiguous, its cast of characters portrayed by actors who give it their all. I don’t regret watching the whole series, and there were very strong moments throughout.

All of which is building up to faint praise, to be quite honest. The series’ grasp exceeded its reach – which in itself isn’t that much of a problem, but what really rankles is how Oz seems to think itself more astute, more perceptive on the evils of the American penal system than it really is. It is too infatuated with its own running commentary and social critique, and it displays the tendency towards hysteria in its storylines and presentation that Spike Lee is prone to. It’s easy enough to forgive this in Lee’s films of the late ’80s and early ’90s, but to find the same tricks used over and over in a series in the late ’90s and early 21st century… well, it makes the series look hokey.

More than that, though, Oz could have been much stronger and held up much better to its successors if it had been two or three seasons rather than the full six seasons it lasted. Its social critique started off as hit-and-miss, often facile rather than perceptive, and this only increased as the series went on. By the time we got to the last couple of seasons, many storylines were thin and fraying at the edges; what kept us watching wasn’t the commentary on prison and how it often achieves an effect that is the opposite of what is intended, but the soap opera. Would Beecher find happiness in his relationship with charming sociopath Keller? Would McManus finally manage to have an adult relationship and not turn into a dick towards a woman he clearly likes? Would Schillinger finally accept that no one knows how to pronounce his name correctly? And as with daytime soaps, the episodic plots were sordid, tacky, maudlin: Rebadow takes up playing the lottery because his son is dying of leucaemia! Alvarez’ wife is divorcing him and fucking his brother! Did I care? Yes – but in a distanced, not particularly involved way.

The final season was a mess of barely begun, half finished ideas and storylines. Dead characters from past seasons were brought back to add their voice to Augustus Hill’s – and then that idea was dropped. New characters were introduced for no apparent reason, almost as if the producers were pretending that Oz wasn’t coming to an end. There were powerful moments – Cyril’s almost-execution – but others were as silly as the series’ worst excesses. (Kirk and Hoyt believing they’re possessed by the devil – WTF?!) The prison production of Macbeth (and the running gag of replacing the actors because they keep dying off) was forgotten for most of the season, even if it was used effectively to stage one character’s death.

All things considered, though, this is one Oz I’m unlikely to revisit. I’ve seen Six Feet Under three times (and am gearing up for a fourth). Same with The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood – even Carnivale and Rome. I’m unlikely to go back to Oz Penitentiary any time soon, though. I guess what we had here was a failure to communicate, eh?

When in Rome…

For all the amazing places I’ve visited vicariously through cinema, last week that was spent in actual, real Rome made me realise that I haven’t seen all that many films set in the Eternal City, in spite of its obvious cinematic qualities. I’ve seen Antonioni’s Roma, Città Aperta, and I’ve watched Matt Damon trying to figure out whether he wanted to be Jude Law or whether he simply wanted him in The Talented Mr Ripley – but other than that, cinematic Rome has passed me by. (Televisionary Rome, on the other hand…) Having recently walked past the house where Frederico Fellini and Giulietta Massina lived for the last years of their lives, I am resolved to check out La Dolce Vita and Roma, at least. Film Four, couldn’t you throw a Fellini retrospective our way?

However, I did spend a couple of weeks earlier this year exploring the place – albeit neither in films nor in the real world, but in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, a game that carries the DNA of both Dan Brown and Umberto Eco according to some critics (I’m afraid that Eco, other than The Name of the Rose and some essays, has passed me by so far – another omission I’m hoping to correct). It’s set in Renaissance Rome, and it’s a near perfect example of how video games, in terms of technology but accordingly also in terms of ambition of what can be depicted in games, have developed in the last couple of years. Obviously seeing the real Pantheon or Colosseum or Campidoglio isn’t the same as seeing them in the game – and indeed, when I fired up Brotherhood this morning to check out the locations with Rome fresh in my memory, I did find them all to look considerably smaller in comparison – but letting you explore places that feel alive and that are inaccessible to you otherwise is something that games are doing better and better.

What games cannot do, though, and won’t for a long, long time, is deliver that perfect Granita di Caffe con Panna. Time for Nintendo to make a deal with Nespresso, methinks!

P.S.: In Brotherhood, the Colosseum and the Pantheon are probably my favourites. In actual Rome, it’s the wonderful Caravaggios (can he lay eggs?), the restaurants and that perfect tagliolini cacio e pepe at Le mani in pasta in the Trastevere part of the city. Molto delicioso!

Vale of Tears, HBO style

My tastes probably tend towards the dark and tragic somewhat. For a while David Fincher’s Seven was my feelgood film (and I’m only exaggerating slightly). I’m not particularly into comedies, mainly because I don’t tend to find them funny – but I think that Shakespeare’s Richard III and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi are both rich in humour, though of the blackest sort. I tend to label things as “bittersweet” that my Significant Other would call “depressing as hell”.

Imagine my surprise when we finished watching season 2 of Oz… and my reaction was pretty much this: Whoa. This series may be too negative, too pessimistic, too “everything is going to shit” for me. By comparison, the last two seasons of Six Feet Under were light tragicomedy, The Sopranos is Analyse This! and Deadwood is Paint My Wagon. In the season 2 finale, Oz gives us a pedophile ex-priest getting crucified by Arians, a Latino guard’s eyes getting stabbed (with disturbing visuals of the damage) and one inmate’s arms and legs being broken. (I can still hear the snapping sounds…) When an old Nigerian gets stabbed to death, it almost feels like a relief: Thank god, they could have put his arm down the garbage disposal and then fed him his own kidneys!

Oz is open to allegations of being gratuitous in its use of violence, at least in this episode – but then, I can think of scenes of Deadwood, Rome and indeed Six Feet Under (elevator bisection!) that are as visceral and gory. So what is it, if not the gruesome depiction of violence? Is it that the characters are by and large doing evil things? Hey, Al Swearengen could pull off as many as six evil things before breakfast, without breaking into a sweat. The Soprano mob was no bit more angelic than the inmates of Oswald Penitentiary. So, again: what is it that makes Oz less bearable?

I think it’s this: Oz is about a world where hope is mostly dead, and what hope is left is killed over and over again. All these other series, for the pain, suffering and evil acts they depict, they haven’t killed off hope. Goodness can exist and survive and sometimes even thrive. In Oz, the only way that goodness can avoid being trampled is by hiding away, making itself smaller. There are sparse moments of light, but they are so exceptional and all the characters seem to know it that you almost dismiss them as a mere distraction from the doom and gloom. And yes, there is humour, but most of the time it’s grim as hell. Even the world of The Wire is more hopeful. Consider that: The Wire is more hopeful than Oz.

Arguably, that’s the world the series depicts: its version of the American penal system is Hell, an institutional hell where goodness is weakness, and the weak get their arms and legs broken. But if a series is that relentlessly negative and nine out of ten times something good happening is just occasion for the characters to fall from a greater height, it becomes wearying. And it’s the first HBO series where I’m not exactly eager to get started on the next season as soon as possible.

Perhaps I need to recover with something lighter.

Arrivederci Roma!

The second season of HBO’s Rome was… well, let’s say that it was less than it could have been. Its main problem was this, it would seem: the series creators realised that Rome wouldn’t be back for a third season. Seeing how they had planned for a five-season arc, they were faced with a dilemma: should they speed up the plot so they could bring it to some semblance of an end, or should they let things play out at the pace they had planned and risk leaving us with yet another Carnivale or Deadwood, ending way before it was finished?

They decided to go for the first option, telescoping their plot for the hoped-for seasons 2, 3 and 4 into the second season. And that’s pretty much what the season felt like: four or five episodes into the story, someone suddenly pressed the Fast Forward button, and off we go like a rocket sled. Pacing? That’s for wimps and people whose series are allowed to run their course.

I remember how frustrated I was especially with Deadwood, where we got three quarters of a complete story. It was as if someone had ripped the last 100 pages from a novel, from every copy ever printed. And then they’d deleted the last 100 pages on every backup of the manuscript. Okay, I realise how thinly stretched the simile is – but the point remains: an unfinished story is a frustrating story.

What is similarly frustrating, though, is a story that doesn’t have time to pace itself. At times the second season of Rome felt like its own “Previously on”: okay, now Brutus is dead! Now Anthony’s in Egypt! Now Servilia’s offed herself! Most of the main characters are dead and have been replaced by twenty-somethings! The kids get half a dozen years older over night! This rushed feel wasn’t necessarily helped by the series’ replacing the young man who had played Octavian with another, slightly older young man playing the same character – while practically all other characters around the same age were still played by the same people!

The letstelleverythingasquicklyaspossiblesowecansqueezeasmuchplotintothisaswecan approach meant that we found some sort of closure, but it also meant that the characters lacked breathing space – and as was the case with so many HBO series, the characters is where it’s at. Brutus’ death, for instance, was still moving, but it could have been infinitely more so with a more generous build-up.

The last episode, though? We were rudely jarred out of Fast Forward, but that meant that at least we had an hour where Rome was returned to its former glory. I admit, I was never too keen on the character of Marc Anthony (as portrayed by James Purefoy): he had all the arrogance and cockiness but little of the charm, which made it all the more difficult for me to understand why certain characters would fall for him. Cleopatra, too, annoyed me more than anything else, striking me as an antique oversexed bimbo with the personality of a urinal.

Give these characters good, meaty deaths, though, and suddenly they become grandiose, they become tragic. They gain the ability to move us. And boy, did they take that opportunity and play it to the fullest. A couple of series have done this: make me care about a character just to kill him or her off – but here it wasn’t a cheap ploy to make us care, it was earned. Anthony and Cleopatra’s deaths, while not the near-perfect scene that Julius Caesar’s murder was, count among the series’ strongest moments, together with the death of Cicero and Lucius Vorenus saving Titus Pullo’s life in the arena.

In spite of the whiplash-inducing pacing problems of the second season, I miss the series. I miss the characters, I miss the plotting and intrigues, I miss the visceral quality of the language and imagery. My hope lies in the Rome movie that is still much more likely to happen than the fabled Deadwood film that’s supposed to wrap up the story. Hey, if HBO can greenlight Sex and the City 2, can’t they spare a few sesterces for Pullo and Vorenus, the most beautiful love story to grace the small screen in years?

The end is the beginning is the end

HBO has been known to do some killer season finales – no pun intended, although it would be a perfectly accurate one in the case of the last episode of Rome‘s first season. The lead-up to the murder of Caesar is masterfully composed and reminiscent of another plot to have a leader and father figure killed in another HBO series: Livia Soprano’s planned killing of that disappointment of a son. (Is it a coincidence that Livia was named for another larger-than-life mother from ancient Rome?)

Throughout the season I’ve been impressed with Ciaran Hinds’ layered portrayal of Caesar, a man whose fierce intelligence, pride and ambition inspire awe even when he’s at his most arrogant and dismissive. His death, even though it’s clear that it’s coming, is startling in its force and brutality – not just in terms of blood and gore, but in terms of the story and the characters. Another favourite of mine (other than Titus Pullo, of course, who’s just a big sweetie when he isn’t murdering people in a jealous rage) is Brutus, who is portrayed by Tobias Menzies with a fascinating mix of hurt pride, bitterness, self-loathing and, strangest of all, genuine love for Caesar.

Another HBO series finale that pushed all the right buttons with me was Generation Kill‘s final episode, “Bomb in the Garden”. It’s rare for a series that is so documentary in its approach to manage its story and character arcs so deftly, but David Simon and Ed Burns have done a brilliant job. The final scene recalls another work by Simon and Burns, namely the ending of The Wire’s season 2, both scenes using a Johnny Cash song (in both cases making me think that perhaps, just perhaps, I ought to check out that Cash guy’s music). And yes, I am quite okay with admitting my considerable man-crush on Alexander Skarsgard.

With all these endings, it’s only fitting that I finally finished Grand Theft Auto IV. So much has been written about the game already that I won’t add anything other than this: I enjoyed the latest installment of Liberty City. If there’s a more convincing, living and breathing city in any game, I haven’t played it yet. Take it away, Philip.