Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Game of Thrones and Cultural Memes

As you likely know, I write regularly about Game of Thrones for Vice.com. I find the show interesting and often compelling. Its terrible on gender, sometimes very good on disability (because Tyrion is so well written, with Jaime also developing well post the loss of his hand), and complicated in its appropriation of medieval ideas. It's also widely popular, and popular culture is worth studying in its own right. 

(some spoilers at the end)

Here's my latest:
The ruler stood on a raised platform surveying a gathering of political foes, vanquished rivals, and professional miscreants. He scowled down at them and named his enemies in the room, calling for the guards to bar the door. As a warning, the ruler invoked a legendary night when a festive gathering, filled with food and alcohol, turned to slaughter.
In other words, over the weekend, President Obama told the gathered throng at the White House Correspondents' Dinner:
You know who you are, Republicans. In fact, I think we've got Republican Senators Tim Scott and Cory Gardner. They're in the house, which reminds me: Security, bar the doors. Judge Merrick Garland? Come on out! We're gonna do this right here, right now! It's like the Red Wedding.
It means something when lines or scenes from television jump beyond the confines of a series into popular culture. From "the truth is out there" (X-Files) to "I am the one who knocks" (Breaking Bad), the phrases resonate even if you didn't watch the show. For me, as a kid, although I never watched a minute of Dallas (a nighttime soap opera), I knew that " who shot J. R." (and "it was just a dream") would resonate as a catchphrase with pretty much everyone. In DC, I know current and former White House staffers and plenty of others for whom the "Big Block of Cheese Day" (West Wing) still is marked on their calendar. Comedies generate such lines and scenes too, from "we were on a break" (Friends) or "master of my domain" (Seinfeld is a particularly endless supplier, with other signature lines as "no soup for you" and "not that there's anything wrong with that").
And yet, in this era of peak TV, where so many excellent shows proliferate across multiple platforms, it's even more impressive when a moment from a show leaps from fan base to general cultural consciousness. That makes the achievement of the Red Wedding as a cultural touchstone (meaning surprising betrayal and slaughter) all the more impressive. The White House Correspondents' Dinner attendees surely don't all watch Game of Thrones, but everyone seemed to know what the president meant. Startled laughter rolled through the hall.
I then think about Season 6, which is the task at hand.

First - thanks to my Facebook horde who helped me brainstorm lines and scenes that have leapt from TV shows into popular culture. I'd like to do more thinking about the role played by memes in this era of peak TV.

As for GoT, I'm enjoying many things about the season, although the Ramsay Bolton issue is real (he has, as I've been saying since the Game of Theons began years ago, and restated in my "things I hate about Season 6" article, only one beat - smiling while doing the worst thing possible. We get it. He's no Joffrey). I'm so tired of Meereen and now it's trapped Tyrion and Varys, who are otherwise so delightful.

Also I think they're rushing: Jon Snow is back after only 2 episodes, Arya's blindness lasts about 6 minutes of total screen time, and in general I fear they are heading into the cliches rather than resisting them.

If the show sputters as it leaps out of the source material and prolongs the last few years, will it lose its hard-won cultural valency?

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