Game of Thrones vs. Camelot

Winter is coming…for television

I know what you think this is going to be.  The same thing I thought it was going to be: me scribbling away while two over-budgeted, derivative fantasy epics beat each other into the ground in a debate over whose sword is broader.  In reality, it has become a handicap match: HBO and Starz vs. me and my patience.

I know this comes as a shock, but I’m not a fan of fantasy epics, neither in literature nor film.  You could counterpoint that by reminding me that I made Wings Over Arda, an adaptation of the early works of J.R.R. Tolkien, but the stories I adapted are based upon and written in the form of mythology, not high fantasy (it’s in the writing style, certainly not the content, I’ll give you that).  My prose (narrative fiction), prize-winning and otherwise, is, for the most part, contemporary.  Wings was a venture I did with friends (for fun) and something I’d wanted to get out of my system for a long time.

Let me begin by saying two things: yes, they’re both engaging shows, and yes, I’m going to spoil what happens in order to illustrate a few points.

Camelot currently has more episodes on the table, and these episodes are packed with gifted headline actors (Joseph Fiennes, Eva Green, Jamie Campbell Bower) and an inspired supporting cast (James Purefoy, Liam Cunningham, Clive Standen, Chipo Chung).  The story follows a 21st-century retelling of the King Arthur mythology, and refreshingly begins with a young Arthur taking the throne.  There are no Knights of the Round Table, Lancelot, Mordred or any of that baloney here; we’re knee-deep in the good stuff right at the outset.  Eva Green plays Morgan (based upon the legendary Morgana le Fay, a sorceress who serves as an antagonist in most versions of the story) as a powerful woman with an agenda.  Sure, she’s harboring dark powers inside her, she refuses to cooperate with her half-brother, and she’s planning to capture the throne of Camelot through devious and contemptible means, but her character is more than Arthur’s antagonist.  Expansive sections of each episode are devoted to Morgan’s story, focusing on her personal struggles – hatred for her mother, gathering allies she doesn’t want for the sake of her eventual goals, and coexisting with her two advisers, Vivian (Chipo Chung) and Sybil (Sinéad Cusack).  Yep, a court of powerful women with real concerns and aspirations.  Call me crazy, but don’t Morgan’s claims to the throne seem… well, warranted?  This is the first real roadblock the show hits, and I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Rounding out the principal cast is Joseph Fiennes, who remains likable no matter what role he takes on.  Here, he plays one of the show’s three central characters, Merlin, portrayed as a godless sorcerer who considers his magic an addiction and a curse, not a glorious gift worthy of celebration.  His motives are murky from the start – why is he in such a hurry to shove Arthur onto the throne?  Merlin’s political agenda isn’t secreted, thankfully, so a certain tension is built between the young king and his most trusted adviser right from the first episode.

Here’s where I get tripped up.  Arthur is played as a weasel from his first scene, in which he’s sleeping with his brother’s girlfriend.  He falls for Guinevere (Tamsen Egerton), the betrothed of his champion knight, and despite some weak resistance from the latter, Arthur steals her.  He whines and defies Merlin’s wisdom throughout the story, which is acceptable for the sake of a conflict, but we have no real reason to root for Arthur’s side over Morgan’s other than the fact that the narrative dictates it.  Arthur and Guinevere are both naive and dishonest.  Morgan’s a pretty straightforward lady, and I dare you to argue that she uses and usurps any more than Arthur and Merlin do.  I know I can’t hope for a profound revelation concerning the respective honor of Team Arthur over Team Morgan, but I shouldn’t have to force myself to root for the good guys.

Let’s shift gears before we get to the column process.  Game of Thrones, the other show in question, is a serial epic currently airing on HBO, based all-too-closely on the works of George R.R. Martin, who claims not to be ripping off J.R.R Tolkien, but uses the same middle initials and names numerous characters after Tolkien’s.  Derivative?  Yeah, sure.  But surely having Mark Addy and Sean Bean in the starring roles of the series will create a legacy for these bloated novels, right?

Unfortunately, HBO is deceiving us.  This series spans several gigantic books, and Ned Stark (Sean Bean’s character) doesn’t make it past the first one.  Sorry; he’s just a hook to get fans of The Lord of the Rings to watch, and it worked, because the show was picked up for a second season before the first episode even finished premiering.

At least the show is better than George R.R. Martin’s literary nightmare, with its grammar errors, unimaginative sentences, laconic phrasing, tons of dialogue, vague statements, ellipses and italics everywhere.  Par for the course in genre fiction, I know, but your average ambitious tenth-grader can write this stuff.

If you have no attachment to the actors, there’s a lot to like in GoT.  As with Camelot, we’re in a medieval setting, although this one has monsters running around and indiscriminately slaughtering people.  The series begins with some of this footage, followed by Ned Stark beheading a deserter with the largest phallic symbol you’ve ever seen on television.  From there, the story grows.  A war is brewing due to tension between Lords and houses, in large part because of a secret romance between Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his sister, Cersei (Lena Headey).  Ned’s daughter, Sansa (Sophie Turner), an adorable redhead, is soon to be betrothed to the son of the King (Mark Addy), the bratty Joffrey (Jack Gleeson).  Why isn’t he attracted to Sansa?  I couldn’t tell you.  On the other side of the story, we’ve got Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), who has been sold off as a trophy bride for the sake of an alliance between her brother and Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), the leader of a vicious horde of barbaric, stereotypical foreign warriors who dance around fires, walk around naked, and babble in a gibberish language no one else in the universe feels like learning.  Perhaps the most impressive and inspired piece of casting comes in the form of Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, the trouble-making brother of Jaime.  Dinklage gets to play a serious role here, which is a refreshing (and much deserved) change.  Despite the fact that he constantly reminds the audience and other characters of his dwarfism, he has a surprisingly generous load of dialogue and plot activity (note: “activity” does not equal “profound relevance to important events”).  His character has a long tenure in the series, so expect to see a lot of him, particularly alongside Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), the story’s Boring Hero.

Neither show hides its intended audience.  The first episode of both shows involves numerous fully nude women, including the lead actresses, and often in explicit sex scenes.  Eva Green drops her entire ensemble in the finale of Camelot‘s second episode for absolutely no reason, and one can tell she doesn’t know why she’s doing it.  Clarke is unnecessarily stripped down and groped in GoT’s first episode, as well as being brutally raped in the episode’s ending.  On that same note, the rape by Khal Drogo continues in the following episode, and after seeking sex advice from one of her handmaids (because in this world, all women are apparently masters of seduction), she learns how to please Drogo by her own will, and is thenceforth proud to be his wife and to be carrying his child.  Let me get this straight: she was forced into a marriage, traded as an object as casually as you might trade a bag of marbles for a pack of gum, was repeatedly (and graphically) raped, and now she’s totally fine with this because her dominant husband let her be on top for a night?  I see what they’re trying to do: she’s gradually earning the favor of Drogo’s people over her brother, learning to be the queen of the Horde and so on, but do not be fooled: Daenerys is not a “strong female character.”  She represents female complacence in the guise of strength and independence.  We’re supposed to believe she not only forgot/forgave her rape and abuse, but embraced one of the most egregious offenders, simply because she was able to slide into a position of minor power.  Any self-respecting woman would have arranged the deaths of both of these abusive miscreants by the second episode.

You’re not off the hook, Camelot.  The court of women is good to have, but Morgan frequently bickers with Sybil, her mother figure, herself a corrupt nun who burned a nunnery to the ground and supports the dastardly overthrow of King Arthur.  Morgan relies on alliances with men, namely King Lot (James Purefoy), which are gained purely through sexual seduction.  If the respective psychologies of both shows are to be followed, then all women are seductive experts who gain no pleasure from sex unless they’re cheating, are adept at using sex for personal gain, and are sexually cooperative if it suits them.  On an unrelated note, Purefoy plays a perfect villain, but is unceremoniously dumped from the cast when he dies in the second episode during a contrived fight scene.

The gore and gratuity are there, too.  GoT is a bit more violent, frequently showing gruesome decapitations and tossing the F word around as though the producers are trying to lure Sam Jackson in.  Camelot is graphic in other ways, showing realistic aftermaths of sexual encounters and some violence against animals (including a preposterous scene in which Guinevere siphons blood from the neck of a long-dead deer as if it’s the gas tank of a minivan), and often spares us seeing the exact process by which the heads actually come off.

Storywise, Camelot is creative and often surprising in its retelling of the Arthur tales.  The telling of the Sword of Gods and the Lady of the Lake are very well-done, as is the character progression – namely Merlin and Morgan, and to lesser extents, Gawain and Sybil.  Arthur and Guinevere are still boring and unsympathetic, although Arthur did wear cool armor in one episode, which I’m guessing is supposed to substitute for personality.  Fiennes remains the emphatic savior of the show, and if it gets a second season, it will be because of him and Green.

GoT‘s storytelling is not exactly plodding, but it’s slow.  If you’re not interested in one of the three main groups of characters, you’ll be pausing the DVR to run to the kitchen and dig for stimulants.  That said, the actors approach their roles with enthusiasm and dedication, and if nothing else, this series should get some young faces recognized and should bolster the more seasoned ones.

As far as picking a winner, I won’t (if you read the intro, you knew I wasn’t going to).  My conclusion, however, is that there must be one extreme or the other with these shows: if you watch one, there’s no reason not to watch the other.  They’re engaging, enjoyable, and more thoughtful than the lion’s share of network brain-junk.  They both do dramatic dialogue scenes well, particularly GoT, where there is fiery tension even when characters discuss what they want for breakfast.  They’re almost companion pieces to each other, with their rich worlds, glorified battles and near-unwavering misogyny.  Camelot, as some have noted, is not as grand a production as GoT, but is likely to remain art long after GoT has devolved into a franchise (which is, sadly, what people want now).

I’m not made of stone.  I know these stories are set in the middle-ages, but we, the viewers, are not.  If you’re claiming that these are “modern” adaptations, I want to see why.  Here’s a hint: I’m not talking about impressive special effects.

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