Embrace the mystery: Is repeat viewing the best way to approach complex TV?

Embrace the mystery: Is repeat viewing the best way to approach complex TV?

Brandon Nowalk: I didn’t like the first season of Game Of Thrones until I watched season two. It felt simplistic, especially compared to the mercenary game of Risk the show has become. Cut off the two subplots in the North and the East, which are mostly disconnected anyway give or take a raven, and the main story is a relatively straightforward give-and-take between two powerful families that eventually leads to war. The première is a solemn hour about honor and duty that sure takes its time getting to the soapy thrills, and the next few episodes busy themselves with fish out of water acclimating to their new lives before really digging into the medieval murder mystery and life-or-death gambles. Magic is suggested but rarely seen. Battles are fought toward the end, but they aren’t shown. In short, season one felt like a sullen prologue to the real story of the Seven Kingdoms. Having not read the books, it still feels that way with respect to Jon Snow’s initiation up north. I’d give half his grim lessons in heroism to learn where the hell the fire witch came from.

But after gobbling up season two, that prologue took on new shades. Part of that is the usual deepening of characters that many serialized dramas go through. Renly turned out to be more than another smirking royal, for instance, and Theon turned out not to be such a happy hostage after all. After season three, the effect is even stronger. I was shocked to hear Beric Dondarrion’s name called out in an early episode, ordered by Ned Stark to subdue a fugitive. It’s not a very memorable scene, but it’s irrevocably enriched by season three’s revelations about a newly eye-patched Beric. Even main characters like Jaime Lannister reveal new layers that echo back through time. He spends the first season an untouchable wise-ass, and the one scene that would complicate that description—his capture by Robb’s forces—occurs offscreen, like Beric’s arrest attempt. But after Jaime’s indelible monologue about his Kingslayer epithet in season three, there’s an added pang every time it gets tossed around in season one.

Then there’s the mystery of season three, how everything is pitched to maximum intrigue, from Stannis’ family to the jockeying at King’s Landing, even though the only real narrative mystery has to do with Theon’s situation. The effect is that I always feel like everything’s about to make sense, which is the carrot dangling in front of every episode. Finally, after the climactic “The Rains Of Castamere,” much about the season does indeed snap into focus. Watching the season première in the light of the climax already reveals more detail.

“The Rains Of Castamere” also teases the long-awaited reunion of the surviving Starks, which has been my main rooting interest—besides a casual hope that Dany crosses the ocean before I die of old age—and then gleefully keeps them apart. The last time the Starks were a happy family together was the series première. All those goodbyes in the first few episodes couldn’t possibly seem as final then as they do now. In fact, the slow disintegration of all kinds of structures—the climate, the kingdom, even the beloved map is misleading in episodes where everyone’s on the run—over that first season take on more weight now that they’re semi-permanent. As the show devolves from a civil dispute to a bracket-style war into a complete jungle of armies and agendas, the cracks in season one become that much more dramatic. And seeing a narrative nobody like Beric come back to life, the deaths of characters like my main man Renly seem even more arbitrary.

It’s not that Game Of Thrones “gets good in season three,” to borrow a moldy Golden Age cliché. It’s that it’s constantly expanding, giving itself more dimension, zooming in and re-focusing like a digital map. With each passing episode, I feel like I better understand what was going on way back at the start. That’s partly a product of being self-contained, even if the final chapters are still technically in George R.R. Martin’s head. No wonder everything reflects back on the beginning. For all its realms and fantasy, Game Of Thrones is smaller and tighter than the other sprawling cable dramas, more furiously focused on just the characters that compose this single story, this fight for power as a dangerous, supernatural season takes root. Cersei has no offscreen life. Melisandre came from nowhere. There are only the scenes, and the longer the show goes, the deeper those scenes become. Am I crazy, or is this a new direction for hyper-serialized television?

Todd VanDerWerff: I think you’re right, Brandon, and I think that’s why the show’s so involving. Even when I have complaints about the show—which is only occasionally nowadays—I’m still deeply invested and intrigued by what’s happening. And I’ve read the books, so I more or less know where this is all going! There’s something fascinating about that constant re-contextualization of information, about the fact that you might learn something in episode 35 that will have huge bearings when you re-watch episode one, and Game Of Thrones plays that game better than just about any other show on TV. But I think it’s worth noting that this seems to be the new house style at HBO, even if the network’s other shows don’t play as long of a game as Game Of Thrones does. Boardwalk Empire tells season-long stories that are constantly redefining characters and relationships. Treme is like a long series of mosaic tiles revealing an overall design. Both Girls and Enlightened take their time revealing their true motives (about which we’ll discuss more in a moment, I’m sure). And True Blood is… well, I don’t know what’s going on there, but it’s definitely something. Call it the gradual novelization of TV.

We arrived at this point, Brandon, because we were talking about Arrested Development, and that seems to me the comedy equivalent of a lot of what we’re talking about here. The first three seasons were complicated and complex, yeah, but they were also recognizable as TV—episodes adding up to story arcs adding up to seasons. But the show’s fourth season is a different beast entirely, one we both like, but to different degrees. (You love it; I like it but take issue with some of it.) What can’t be denied is that it’s taking this re-contextualization approach and turning it toward the television comedy. Storylines don’t really make sense until later episodes, and the season reaches its zenith when the show arrives at its last five episodes, where understanding comes fast and furious, and the rug is pulled out from under the audience time after time. There are moments here that are goddamn delightful, and, yes, that reminds me of Game Of Thrones.

Now, I want to make clear what we’re talking about here. Every single TV show does a little bit of this, and it’s not uncommon to hear people say that, for example, they went back to watch the first season of Parks And Recreation—which they didn’t like at the time—with their knowledge of the show’s later seasons and realized they liked it much better. TV is all about learning more and more about the characters we see from week to week, getting a deeper understanding of what makes them tick, and slowly coming to understand them better. So we’re not just talking about serialization or about character understanding growing with time. Nor are we simply talking about shifting opinions. Any TV show is an organic entity that evolves as it grows, as opposed to something like a film, which stays relatively constant, the viewer changing to suit it as time goes by.

What we’re talking about is, I think, a new way of constructing television. Let’s look at a fairly classical serialized drama like Breaking Bad. On Breaking Bad, we tend to get the motivation before the character takes action. There are places where a character’s actions seem a mystery to us (namely with Gus Fring in season four), but for the most part, we watch as Walter White learns he has cancer and launches his desperate plan, bit by agonizing bit. I think shows like Game Of Thrones and Arrested Development are putting the action before the motivation. We watch as Jaime Lannister or George Bluth Sr., wanders around, doing things that seem surface-level, then we get the motivation later on. Again, it’s a novelistic conceit: We delve into the characters once we’re hooked into them on an actions-first level. It’s the first really major alteration of the Sopranos template when it comes to making quality television, and it’s exciting to watch it play out, even if not every step pans out along the way. Other shows do this from time to time, but the shows of this era seem increasingly to only do it. Mystery becomes the reason for existence.

There are a whole bunch of cautions I would level against that model—even if I think many of the shows on the air handle it well—and I would say that mystery is rarely a substitute for conflict. But for now, I think we should turn to the elephant in the room when it comes to this kind of storytelling, what’s probably the show that inadvertently created this kind of structure out of sheer necessity. And that means we need to talk about Lost. Or can you pinpoint an earlier program for this kind of storytelling?

BN: Lost is precisely the biological father I’d track down, although the genealogical branch back to Twin Peaks is pretty clear. In Lost’s first season, there’s a long-term present-day story about a bunch of people plane-wrecked on a mysterious island together, and then there are standalone flashback stories. Each episode spotlights a different character, superficially to explain why the survivors got on the fateful plane, but really to illuminate deeper characterizations that would define them over the coming seasons. Every new episode in that first round of flashbacks sheds light on the events of the première, charts its coastline and maps its topography. It made for a sturdy base, even if later seasons preferred to stand on the edge and reach for vague definite articles (the others, the constant, the temple) instead of building on the foundations. This is part of what distinguishes new shows like Game Of Thrones: As with season four of Arrested Development, the story was at least structurally complete before the show began.

I’m glad you brought up Arrested Development, though, because its fourth season seems to me a genuine television landmark, and not just for dubiously affecting Netflix shareholders. On one level, it’s working overtime to feel like a natural extension of the original series. The main cast and many supporting actors all reprise their parts, jokes are resurrected (“Bees?!”), and the same ideas are churned out by the story as the idle rich try to avoid responsibility. Season four even finds a productive vein in a punchline Lindsay said back in 2003: “Well, I don’t care about ostriches.” But it’s also totally different in structure, which suits an era in the Bluth family where nobody’s holding them all together. Instead, mastermind Mitchell Hurwitz follows each of them individually through an episode, and the intersections keep getting re-contextualized by different perspectives. It’s the Game Of Thrones effect turned to 11 and squared.

You talk about how this is a trailblazer for comedy, how Arrested Development imports dramatic serial structures into a half-hour show. Maybe that’s partly why I experience it as a drama. Or maybe it’s the running times. (If my numbers are right, season four is the show’s longest.) But with every character a free agent (and every story about finding oneself), pushovers like Tobias and Buster start to show some spine. Even George Michael starts pursuing personal goals that conflict with those of his family. Suddenly relative good guy Michael Bluth isn’t such a hero. And that’s part of the point. Parents on Arrested Development are dangerously selfish when it comes to their children, and the youngest generation is starting to rebel. I’m hoping for more seasons just to see if all rebellions are as doomed as Lindsay marrying Tobias.

Season four might be confusing, but it isn’t unfocused, half-hearted homework. Just look at its identity crises. First, George Michael grows a mustache and George Sr. switches places with Oscar, and before you know it, everyone in the cast is wearing a wig and denying their identity. Face-blindness and rights issues and even computer software come into play. Michael summed up the season: It’s the antisocial network. The more I watch and re-watch (this season and others), the more connections I make. That’s not Game Of Thrones drinking milk and strengthening its bones. That’s a completely different animal.

That said, I understand and to a certain extent agree with the common complaint: Getting through these episodes the first time can be a pain. Game Of Thrones hit peak intrigue for me several weeks ago, and I’ve been pulled tight on the show’s torture-rack narrative ever since. You nailed it: “Mystery becomes the reason for existence.” That’s Lost in a nutshell for me. Part of me loves that “Across The Sea,” the big explanation episode, features a cast of guest stars giving answers that only confuse things further. But since you brought it up, take Enlightened. I couldn’t even reach my arms around the show until the fourth episode or so. I’ve heard from several marathon-viewers who didn’t like it at first but slowly fell into its rhythms. But looking back, much of what I love about the show is in the pilot: words vs. actions, man vs. nature, the turtle. I couldn’t see how it all fit together, but the pieces were there.

We’ve dumped a bunch of pieces on the floor ourselves, so let me see if I can put them in order. There are many different kinds of shows that deepen—not just lower expectations, but unlock their treasure chests—the more you watch. First there’s the basic quality drama model of exploring characters and ideas as the plot moves along. The more you watch Mad Men, the more you understand Peggy Olson and snowballing vulgarity and the relationship between the personal demolition of pretenses and the political. Then there are retrospective successes like Parks And Recreation, which don’t so much improve as re-write themselves. Then there are retrospective successes like Enlightened, which take some acclimation. (That reminds me of Roger Ebert’s chestnut that great movies teach you how to watch them.) Then there’s Game Of Thrones, which is a tightening of the basic model, strengthening as it inches across an epic-but-focused story 10 weeks at a time. Finally, there’s Arrested Development, which expands exponentially on re-watch, a kind of telescopic television unlike anything else. Does this sound about right? And more importantly, do you think mystery has become the raison d’être for Arrested Development’s jigsaw season or Game Of Thrones?

TV: I haven’t been able to re-watch all of Arrested, but I’ve re-watched a handful of my favorite episodes, and I’d agree they’re stronger the second or third times through (though my major complaints with the season—namely, the bloated feeling of the piece—grew stronger as well). In particular, the thematic ties you allude to in your brief discussion of the season’s obsession with the denial of identity become stronger and stronger when you’re not trying to figure out what the hell is going on and how everything locks together. (I’d also point out the ways that the show keeps building literal walls between Bluths to match the metaphorical ones they’ve constructed in their family dynamic.) But that speaks to the problem with the mystery-show dynamic: It takes an awful lot of gall for an artist to suggest that the audience stick around for an unspecified amount of time to figure out what this is all about. Now, I have faith in Mitch Hurwitz, so he can have all the gall he wants. And the Game Of Thrones guys have a book series to build off of (there, all the gall is extended to George R.R. Martin). But what about others?

As a case in point, let’s consider a show you covered a season of, Brandon, a show called The Killing. On that show’s first season, things opened with an intriguing puzzle-box mystery whodunit, then deepened through an episode or two. It wasn’t until episode four or five, I think, that I started to realize just how little was actually there. The show’s characters were paper-thin. The plotting was driven almost entirely by coincidence. All the show had was mystery, and it kept leaning on that particular note over and over and over. By the time the series attempted to offer up some explanations—in the 11th episode of its first season—it was too late. I no longer had much interest in who the characters were, because the show had so thoroughly tried my patience in all other regards. (The Killing just began a third season that appears to be built entirely around vague portent yet again. Predictably, I will be watching.) Or think of some of the middle seasons of Lost, when it wasn’t immediately clear where the show was going. How many viewers lost faith at that point? And is it wrong to suggest they should have stuck it out, just because it eventually tightened things up?

Lost points to another, more elemental problem with mystery-show construction: It eventually becomes all about the ending. What’s the biggest complaint from the biggest fans of the fourth season of Arrested Development? The ending doesn’t really “end” anything. And can you imagine what it will be like if all involved in Game Of Thrones screw up their endpoint? We watch the mysteries we enjoy, secure in the sense that there will be a solution somewhere along the line, certain that we will get a satisfying resolution. And when we don’t—shades of The Killing, sure, but also Lost and Battlestar Galactica—well, we can get angry. Really angry. I bow to no one in my love of the finales for Lost and BSG, but even I’ll admit they had problems trying to wrap up too much and not quite knowing how to do so. And for many viewers, those problems become the whole of the work, when a more conventionally told story might not have had such issues.

We’re primarily talking about this phenomenon in regards to Game Of Thrones and Arrested Development, two highly complex and ambitious works, but what I said above also applies to series that do this on a more modest scale, like some of those HBO comedies we discussed before. You’ve already mentioned how Enlightened’s prickly protagonist is difficult to understand until a fourth-episode monologue makes her snap into place, while it takes seven whole episodes for Girls’ Hannah Horvath to make complete sense. (Indeed, a fairly major character motivation—the reveal of a mental illness that bedeviled her in adolescence—isn’t made concrete until the eighth episode of the second season.) What’s more, as with your assertion that Arrested’s season four is more drama than comedy, both of those shows skew far more toward the dramatic than even HBO’s other comedies, like the more straightforwardly comedic Veep.

I’d caution that I don’t think either of us is saying that this is the new way to create stories, and all shows that don’t do this are desperately behind. The vast majority of the series on the air are always going to be straightforward stories, with readily understandable character motivations and cause-and-effect storytelling. Many of these shows will be soulful and artful and reveal their depths over time. But it seems clear that not only are mystery shows going to be with us for as long as scripted TV is a thing, but also that they’re going to reach out and influence other genres and places you’d never expect to see them in the first place. (Just writing that made me kind of enthralled by the idea of a reality show influenced by these storytelling techniques, though I have no idea how one would do such a thing.) Like its obvious ancestor Twin Peaks, Lost seemed sui generis for a long time, like something so singular that few other shows would ever successfully copy it. And that’s still mostly true. But dribs and drabs of it are turning up all over, and while that’s made for exciting television in some places, it’s also made for The Killing or FlashForward or the “Abu Nazir comes to the U.S.” storyline in season two of Homeland or what-have-you. Sometimes, mystery is wonderful, but sometimes, you just want somebody to sit down and tell the fucking story.

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