“Game of Thrones” and the Essos Problem

Let me begin by saying that I’m a huge fan of HBO’s Game of Thrones.  I’ve been a devoted viewer of the show, and I’ve read all of the books in George R.R. Martin’s series several times.  Indeed, it is precisely because I have read the books and loved them so much that I find Game of Thrones unsatisfying in one particularly vexing respect:  its portrayal of the continent of Essos.

Beginning from the first season, the HBO series has brought an immense amount of complexity to the various corners of the Seven Kingdoms (including, most recently, Dorne).  Yet when it comes to Essos, the vast continent that stretches over huge swathes of the eastern part of this world, the series has struggled to portray it as anything other than vaguely exotic; indeed, the most compelling part of the portrayal of Essos remains the small images of the various cities that emerge during the opening credits.

The unfortunate tendency to generalize Essos emerged in some form as early as the first season.  For example, the Magister Illyrio is, in the novel, an enormously corpulent man who indulges in all the numerous pleasures the city of Pentos has to offer; in the series, he is a seemingly normally proportioned man.  This flattening tendency was made even more obvious in the second season, when Dany finally arrives at the exotic city of Qarth.  In the novel, the city has a rich and vibrant culture, with various forces–such as the warlocks, the Pureborn, and the Tourmaline Brotherhood–all vying for control.  In the series, however, this is reduced to something at once more banal and more ridiculous, as the wealthy Xaro conspires with the warlock Pyat Pree to have himself declared King of Qarth.  This storyline, to me at least, felt so incredibly forced and trite that it made the cheapening of the Qarth storyline in general that much more disappointing (and I, for one, was happy when it was finally over).

For a more recent example, take Meereen, the vast city that Daenerys Targaryen successfully conquered, setting free its vast population of slaves.  In the novels, the city, like others along Slaver’s Bay (such as Yunkai and Astapor), is ruled by vicious nobles who often attempt to outdo one another with the outlandishness of their elaborately coiffed hair, while religious figures known as the Graces provide the spiritual element of the city. In the HBO series, gone are the hairstyles and the Graces, replaced with hopelessly banal, vaguely ethnic nobles who have little to no characterization.  A similar problem haunts the portrayal of Volantis (visited by Tyrion and Varys in Season 5), which gets just a passing glimpse before the characters move on (though, to be fair, the show does at least allow the viewer to see the ways in which the slaves of the city are branded according to their occupation).

One must wonder why, with an enormous budget and a great deal of creative control over the material, the writers and producers would so consistently homogenize the people and civilizations of Essos, when bringing them to the screen would add yet another layer of complexity and visual delectation.  Part of it, I suspect, has to do with the simmering orientalism that underpins so much of the series (including the portrayal of the Dothraki).  Why spend time painting the people of the east with anything remotely resembling complexity when you can just tar them all with the same generic exoticism (since that seems to be what the audience expects?)  After all, isn’t it really the men and women of Westeros that really matter to the story (note my heavy doses of sarcasm).

I also suspect that part of it is the central problem posed by Dany’s storyline.  The series and the novel have both struggled with how to make her more relevant to the Westeros-centric stories that form the heart of the narrative drama, with middling success.  While her recent escape from the fighting pits atop the formidable dragon Drogon seems to suggest that we might at least be seeing her story move in some interesting directions.  Hopefully, the show will take this opportunity to portray Essos with a little more complexity and depth.

But, to be honest, I’m not holding my breath.

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