Here at The A.V. Club, we divide our reviews of HBO’s adaptation of Game Of Thrones into two tracks. One is for newbies to the series, and the other is for veterans. It’s a pretty good solution for a perpetual problem, or at least what will be a problem until the series catches up with the books, at which point, anarchy will reign down upon the land and send the world into the dark ages. I read David Sims’ reviews for newbies, because I made a decision before the series aired not to read the books until the television series ended. But while that decision potentially worried me during the outset of tonight’s South Park episode “Black Friday,” my fears were soon assuaged. What unfolded wasn’t a tale of economic insanity, next-generation console wars, and Randy’s overall Randy-ness through the prism of George R.R. Martin’s books but specifically through the HBO adaptation overseen by D.B. Weiss and David Benioff. And while it’s hard to judge this parody through the prism of a single episode in what looks like a multi-week narrative, the start is very promising indeed.
Much virtual ink has been spilled here this season about the show’s overall decline in quality. But “Black Friday” feels more like old-school South Park than any other episode this season. Yes, the episode is topical like others this year, but the subject of topicality—the imminent launches of the PlayStation 4 and XBOX One—isn’t one that requires a particularly deft hand or deep analysis. With both consoles due to launch before Black Friday, the kids of South Park band together in their best Lord Of The Rings-borrowed cosplay in order to wage virtual war on the malls. (Cartman’s wizard hat is just his Gandalf hat, with absolutely no cosmetic change whatsoever.) Why? Because South Park Mall has promised an 80 percent discount to the first 30 people who enter the building. What at first is a concentrated effort on the part of all youths soon splits apart, with kids soon declaring allegiances to… their preferred method of marketing. When the XBOX One-loving Cartman declares, “Let these Sony fucks wallow in their limited voice-control functionality!” he’s not speaking from any type of experience. He’s merely parroting Microsoft’s corporate speak filtered through fan-friendly message boards. The same goes for Stan’s preference for the PS4 controller, even though it’s almost certain that he’s never held one before.
Why wrap Game Of Thrones in all this? There’s no real reason to do so, except that it’s really amusing and offers up a great way to frame the overall narrative. What makes the approach really work is that “Black Friday” is not a one-for-one parody so much as a thematic one. A cross-dressing Kenny McCormick is most likely playing Cersei Lannister, but the final image also suggests a low-budget Daenerys Targaryen. It’s easy enough to recognize that South Park Mall stands in for Castle Black, and the grizzled leader of the mall’s security staff represents a figure not unlike Jorah Mormont. Those parents queuing in line outside the mall? Probably the White Walkers. So on and so forth. But none of this really matters. “Black Friday” is more interested is taking a wider view of the series and exploring the hard choices that people in that world make, the deals they must often cut, the sacrifices that often arise, and the double-crossing that makes every step more dangerous than the last.
And yet this played out over the attempt to purchase expensive hardware and “Stop Touching Me, Elmo!” dolls at bargain prices. So it seems like a reductive, ridiculous appropriation of Game Of Thrones, where they stakes seem much higher. And yet, that’s the ultimate joke of this episode: Americans treat Black Friday as seriously as the seven kingdoms treat the Iron Throne. (To be fair, you could also argue the pursuit to sit upon the Iron Throne is equally ridiculous, and that Game Of Thrones repeatedly makes that exact point, but I’ll leave that to another thread.) If you ask anyone in the episode WHY they so desperately crave the item they seek within the South Park Mall, they could certainly give you a surface answer. But that answer merely parrots the marketing that led them to crave the item in the first place.
It’s a vicious cycle rife with positive feedback, even though “positive” here is scientifically accurate but connotatively contradictory. People want things because they are told they want them, and when they learn others want that same thing, their own appetite increases. A mixture of YOLO and FOMO foments, until suddenly people are stabbing security guards for the chance to get a bracelet guaranteeing them a place in line for the post-Thanksgiving ode to capitalism. It’s ridiculous, but only in terms of degree, not kind, to the types of scenes we see on the evening news on the Friday after the fourth Thursday in November each year.
Along the way, we get great throwaway gag after great throwaway gag. The Goth Kids-centric episode a few weeks back was fairly awful, but having them casually vouch for PlayStation 4 due to the color of its casing was a great way to deploy them. Butters’ constant confusion over the male nudity in the HBO show had me envisioning a conversation about sexposition with my A.V. Club colleague Myles McNutt. Cartman’s disgust over the Star Trek kids’ passion, which he couldn’t fathom being as part of the same world as his love for Game Of Thrones, always elicited a laugh. Kyle’s despondency over the inability for XBOX One users to pre-order a copy of Metal Gear Solid 5 was a fantastic example of how corporations can make meaningless perks seem like the most desirable things possible.
Not everything worked, to be sure. The “Stop Touching Me, Elmo!” doll is both outdated and too crass by half, and while it drove the plot, any fictional doll could have sparked the same riot and still hinted to the real source of the satire. And everything to do with the head of Sony was problematic. Sure, there are plenty of examples of how South Park had mocked foreign cultures in un-PC ways. But that doesn’t mean that it often works as either comedy or commentary. It’s sometimes silly, usually offensive, and rarely productive. Having the CEO engage in Game Of Thrones-esque sex was fine. But having the mangled pronunciation of the “Black Friday Bundle” repeated over and over again was unfortunate.
As stated at the outset, “Black Friday” looks to be the first of several episodes dedicated to this epic war, in the grand tradition of the Imaginationland arc, “Cartoon Wars” and episodes dedicated to the exploits of The Coon and Mysterion near the end of season 14. With no prior knowledge that this would be a multi-episode story, I found myself staring at my watch with two minutes left wondering how in the hell the show was going to wrap all this up. And yet, “Black Friday” demonstrates some really solid structure: Randy’s arc was timed perfectly to have him take on a Jaime Lannister-esque role next week, and the betrayal by Lady McCormick promises a huge shift in the South Park Console War as well as a great cliffhanger. Trey Parker and Matt Stone didn’t run out of time and simply stop for a week. They smartly recognized the scope of its story and planned accordingly. Given how unfocused the show has been this season, it’s something of a miracle to see an episode with such a solid structural backbone. It’s even more of a miracle that I can’t wait to see how this all resolves. Winter is coming, and so is the Console War. I look forward to it with the same anxious anticipation as Butters’ desire to see some dragons kick some ass in Westeros.
- My favorite of the local news’ talking heads about Black Friday: the cheery family who lost a daughter/sibling in the previous year’s massacre and vow revenge with bright smiles plastered across their faces.
- I’ll leave it to smarter Game Of Thrones fans than I to determine this: Was Cartman acting as Littlefinger or Varys in the old man’s garden? I guess you can make an argument for either, although the wardrobe did seem to favor Eric portraying the Master Of Coin.
- I can’t decide if I like it that the elder security guard’s slashed eye was just a prosthetic. But I’m sure it will make Randy 30 percent funnier next episode when he wears it. So maybe that assuages my own doubts.