Friday, July 25, 2014

And God Can Sort Them Out: "Game of Thrones," Season 4 (2014), and "Hannibal," Season 2 (2014)

*This essay contains HEAVY SPOILERS for the most recent seasons of Game of Thrones and Hannibal. Proceed with caution.*

Death is pervasive in television. It creeps into almost every drama, especially when sweeps season rolls around and a series needs a big, shocking moment to boost ratings. But it's more than just a ratings stunt. The death of a major character can be an effective story engine, re-orienting the goals and alliances of the other characters or allowing them moments of solemnity. If the story is structured around an intrusive character threatening the status quo (played by an actor who's only signed on for a finite number of episodes), then the death of that character is the easiest way to wrap up that storyline without leaving any loose ends. And it's not just limited to dramas: comedies, too, occasionally deal with death, in ways that can be Very Special Episode-y (with lots of hugs and sentimentality) or painfully hilarious (the infamous "Chuckles Bites the Dust" episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show). Death is a part of life. So naturally it pops up often on television too.

Yet there are some shows that make death their preoccupation. Last month, two such shows, Game of Thrones on HBO and Hannibal on NBC, wrapped their fourth and second seasons, respectively, with enough blood to run a Red Cross drive. What is fascinating about these two series is how they complement and counter each other when it comes to matters of death and the existence of God(s), in addition to being two of the best dramas currently on television.

More (AND SPOILERS) after the jump.

Game of Thrones has turned surprising character deaths into the show's calling card over its four seasons on the air. Starting from the penultimate episode of the first season, "Baelor," in which ostensible lead Ned Stark (Sean Bean) was beheaded before all of King's Landing, each season has featured at least one shocking death. Season three's "The Rains of Castamere" was anchored by the infamous Red Wedding, in which a number of major characters were brutally killed.

Season four featured even more, with seemingly every episode concluding in a major death. A significant reason for this was because of the way the season was structured: in order to keep the show from outpacing the books, author George R.R. Martin's third book, A Storm of Swords, was divided into the third and fourth seasons of the show. As a result, the fourth season has felt a little disjointed, with each episode feeling more like a collection of narrative climaxes than cohesive episodic storytelling.

However, an overabundance of gore doesn't diminish its effect. Even if the doomed character, such as Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), hasn't been around enough to make a lasting impression, their death still makes a lasting impression on the audience. The kingdom of Westeros - the show's setting - is a brutal world governed by violence, much of it random. This prevalence of death raises the tension for every episode, even every scene: anyone could die at any moment, and their "importance" to the narrative doesn't grant them a pass.

Hannibal, on the other hand, is a collage of death and tragedy, though major characters don't tend to die with the regularity of those on Games of Thrones. Yet where the latter show treats death with cold brutality, Hannibal presents death as a tableaux of macabre beauty. Every body is mutilated into a work of perverse art, as the show's imagery combines Dr. Hannibal Lecter's (Mads Mikkelsen) high-culture pretension with his murderous tendencies. Hannibal looks for beauty and mercy in its grisly deaths, asking the audience to be a willing participant in its dark fantasy.

Will Graham (Hannibal)

In its second season, the show proved to be more willing to let the blood of its main characters spill. When the season began, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) was imprisoned, falsely accused of the crimes that Hannibal had committed (and set him up for). By mid-season, Hannibal had bisected Dr. Beverly Katz (Hettienne Park) after she had come close to discovering his secret life as a cannibal serial killer; at the season's end, Will, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), and Alana Bloom (Caroline Dharvas) - the main cast outside of Mikkelsen - were left laying in pools of their own blood (though their fates were not confirmed).

Both of these shows, interestingly enough, treat death as a kind of mercy. Though both rack up their body counts with pulpy, exploitative glee, in each show a character's death is also presented as a sort of escape from the vicious worlds they inhabit. On Game of Thrones, characters often die either in warfare or through betrayal, but the reason is almost always the same: they stand in the way of another character's quest for power. On Hannibal, freedom from the clutches of evil is granted through death, with the implication that wherever the soul goes when it leaves this monstrous world, it must be a better place. Even though a character may meet a horrifyingly violent end, to die is to finally be given peace.

(This is a significant reason why, despite complaints from fans of the books, it's best that Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) was not resurrected as Lady Stoneheart at the end of the fourth season of Game of Thrones. Her ressurection would have robbed the show of its theme of the totality of death in the face of power and would have been extraneous and, honestly, a bit silly.)

Game of Thrones' Melisandre

Each show's treatment of death opens up an interesting examination of how each conceives of the existence of higher powers. Throughout the show's run thus far, Game of Thrones has provided minor glimpses into Westerosi religion. There are the "old gods" of Winterfell, with whom Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) appears to have a connection through his visions. By comparison, Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) employs the assistance of priestess Melisandre (Carice van Houten), whose magical abilities seem to imply the presence of deities acting through her - or, perhaps, that she herself is a deity. In more sociological terms, the citizens of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros understand that the power endowed in the Iron Throne comes from the gods, so "respect" must be paid to them. If the gods do exist, they don't seem particularly interested in Westerosi affairs. If anything, the gods are bystanders, possibly watching their creation toil for their own amusement. The gods don't play an active role in the Westeros world, and therefore the narrative has only made passing references to them.

Hannibal, on the other hand, presents a chilling alternative: a world that God has abandoned. Television critic Todd VanDerWerff argued this in a piece for The A.V. Club, stating that the world of Hannibal is one where God has left the Devil (Hannibal) free to run amok. At the end of the second season, this seems to be an even more appropriate reading: Hannibal makes a clean break, leaving those on the side of "good" hanging on to life by a thread. There is "goodness" in the world of Hannibal, but a character such as Will Graham - positioned as the Christ figure in this allegory - is no saint; he has killed and he finds himself in constant battle with dark urges. Hannibal knows he holds the allure to lead everyone in his orbit into temptation, darkness, and destruction, and he does so deliberately. The sho, therefore, takes a very pessimistic take on the presence and nature of God: He has forsaken humanity.

It's only nihilistic on the surface, however. Hannibal is actually one of the most religious shows on television (at least, among shows that aren't actively trying to convert non-believers). Through the story of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, creator and showrunner Bryan Fuller is exploring Judeo-Christian themes of good and evil, and the show frames this exploration as in the heightened reality of allegory. The audience is clued in that, deep down, Will Graham is a good man who has been corrupted by his friendship with Hannibal. Many of the "case of the week" stories in each episode (this is, after all, still a procedural, at least in format) involve religious delusions of grandeur, and there are hallucinatory avatars such as the Stag Man that stalk through Will's imagination. At its core, Hannibal questions whether "good" can remain in a world without God, or if the all-consuming influence of the Devil would destroy any last vestiges of "good." Appropriately, the show doesn't presume to have any answers to this query, at least not at this point in its run.

Though Game of Thrones and Hannibal occupy vastly different spaces in the television landscape, they present similar ideas about death, as well as interesting themes on the roles and nature of deities within their worlds. Their most recent seasons further cement their connection thematically, and together present a funhouse-mirror reflection of a society concerned with violence and responsibility.

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