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Peter Dinklage, Tyrion Lannister, and the Value of Good Writing

Perhaps it’s in bad taste to write a post a couple of hours after posting that I wouldn’t be writing for a little while. That being the case, I managed to find some time between stuffing my face with tacos (sadly not a euphemism, as a New Englander I’m deprived of good Mexican food and as such spend most of my trips to California eating nothing but meat, beans and rice) to put to pen something that I’ve been mulling around in my head for about a week or so. But first, since we’re already in an apologetic spirit, sorry if this contains less than the requisite amount of fart jokes that you’ve come to expect from me.

As you may have gleaned from my seemingly nonstop praise, HBO’s Game of Thrones is in my estimation head and shoulders the best show on television. Still, standing head and shoulders (irony not really intended, if you can not intend iron in a blog post) the rest of that show’s estimable cast is one man; Peter Dinklage. Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister has, since his introduction, been the show’s most consistently likable and interesting character. Despite the first season’s natural bent towards making Ned Stark the center of attention, Tyrion consistently stole the show, at least in part due to the way Stark’s Boy Scout sense of honor led him to an easily predictable (in retrospect) early grave.* With Stark out of the way, the show now belongs unmistakably to Tyrion and Dinklage has been awesome in the role. Seriously, hand him all the Emmy’s right now, no one else need be considered. Still, while I’ve been a Dinklage fan since I saw The Station Agent on a plane when I was 14, the question that’s been nagging me is whether Dinklage just has a natural advantage over every other actor on TV: the strength of his writing.

Let’s start with the writing aspect. Along with, perhaps, Mad Men, Game of Thrones is TV’s best written drama**. The plot lines are complex, sweeping, and unpredictable. Characters who seem destined for greatness one moment find themselves getting executed in the next. What makes Game of Thrones truly great is the dialogue. The mark of great dialogue is that it reveals how a character thinks without saying it in certain terms. For example, simply from her interactions with others, we understand that the only type of power that Cersei Lannister understands is the Machiavellian kind (Her line about pulling out weeds is particularly revealing). In this sense, Tyrion Lannister is a wonderfully written character. His motivations aren’t always completely clear, he’s driven in part by love of a family that doesn’t love him back (with the exception of Jamie) and in part by a deep sense of shame stemming both from his birth and his first “marriage.” Tyrion’s a good guy on the bad guys’ side and he seems to be aware of that fact, but he’s also smart enough to realize that in his situation the good guys aren’t that different from the bad guys. In fact, the “good guys” have already tried to have him killed. As such, his outlet seems to be to call every other character in the show out on their bullshit, and in a drama about court intrigue there’s plently of bullshit to call out. The only other character on TV as complex as Tyrion is Don Draper (can you tell my viewing habits yet?) and Don isn’t as consistently likable as Tyrion for a number of reasons.

So yeah, Dinklage is at a natural advantage over pretty much every other actor on television, he has the best character to work with. Some of Tyrion’s turns of phrase this season have been nothing short of brilliant. Still, even as an aspiring writer, I’m loathe to chalk up Dinklage’s brilliance to the script and just be done with it. After all, Cerseri Lannister and Littlefinger get handed plenty of quality dialogue every week and I’m not ready to put Lena Headey*** and Aiden Gillan on the same level as Dinklage. It really isn’t something that can be reduced to a recipe: two parts source material, one part adaptation, one part actor, shake with ice and serve in a chalice. So for lack of a better equation, let’s leave this where we started and just hand Peter Dinklage every award we can find, k?

*Those who have read the books on which Game of Thrones  is based will note that Stark is a classic heroic figure, a guy who keeps making decisions based on what is right rather than what he really wants: his marriage, becoming Hand of the King, not immediately outing Cersei and Jamie, the list goes on. Guys like that seldom make it to the top in real life and they always wind up dead in Westeros.

**What’s interesting is the contrast between the two. Mad Men relies on an economy of dialogue. The exchanges between characters are generally short and terse. You know, how normal people talk. It’s awesome in it’s realism. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, is full of lengthy, witty banter and epic speeches, yet in context, it doesn’t necessarily fell less real. You expect people in castles to talk like that. Two strategies, similar effects. I have way too much time.

***Headey has done a phenomenal job imbuing Cersei with the kind of sneering smugness that anyone who’s read the books imagines the character with, still I wonder if there aren’t dozens of female actors who couldn’t do the same. Also, she just looks weird as a blond.

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Mad Men Season 5: Everyone Gets Lazy

I’m in my mid-twenties and I’m a man of remarkably few accomplishments. I’m also tremendously lazy. I guess that’s why I can understand why Don Draper doesn’t seem to care anymore. Don’s pretty much got it all at this point. He’s at the top of his profession and he’s got a 20 year old wife who sings him “Zou Bissou Bissou” on his birthday. So what if he just wants a nap now?

Of course the truth about Don’s new found ambivalence is undoubtedly deeper than simple aging and contentment. Mad Men has always been more about the transformation of American culture than it has been about advertising. From the beginning of this season it’s become pretty clear that the show’s old guard is quickly falling behind the times. Last night’s scene at the Rolling Stones concert was instructive. 1962 Don Draper would have found a way to make that impossible situation work. 1966 Don Draper just isn’t cool enough and he doesn’t really seem to care.

For the past few seasons I’ve been operating on the assumption that Don would basically become Roger Sterling as he aged, a theory that I thought was confirmed when Don married his receptionist at the end of last season. It’s pretty clear now that that theory is flat out wrong. The two men have very different motivations. Roger Sterling has been on an alcohol fueled downslide for some time, but at least he’s still fighting, holding on to the ledge by his fingers, to paraphrase his own words. The reason is that Roger is a man motivated largely by pride. He can’t stand the thought of Pete Campbell — whom he brought into the business — upstaging him and he’ll fight tooth and nail to keep Campbell in his place. Don, for all his other faults, has never seemed a particularly proud man. His motivations have always been more about his insecurities. Those insecurities are now largely gone. Everyone knows about Dick Whitman now and Don can finally let his guard down and do what he really wants to do; sleep.

Don’s not the only one letting himself go. An interesting parallel is ex-wife Betty. Like Don, Betty finally has what she’s always wanted: a rich man who won’t cheat on her, and now she’s going to do what she wants; eat Bugles and ice cream*. Also like Don, Betty has always been driven by her insecurities largely linked to her incompetence as a mother and Don’s philandering**. Now the kids are older, she has help, and Don is largely out of the picture. Betty’s old weaknesses returned for a moment with the cancer scare, but as soon as she was in the clear, she went right back to her bad old habits.

There’s generally an overarching theme to each season of Mad Men, so far this season’s theme seems to be that everyone gets lazy.

* — January Jones in a fat suit has to be one of the most iconic TV images of the past year and possibly the funniest TV moment of 2012 so far. It certainly beats anything The Big Bang Theory has done throughout its existence.

** — I always found it interesting that despite his drinking and wenching, Don has always been the better parent of the two.

A Friendly Reminder: ‘Game of Thrones’ is Back This Sunday

HBO’s Game of Thrones was easily the best new television program that debuted last season and it’s back this Sunday to melt all of our faces off again. I’ve read the books (because I’m a dork) so I won’t provide any analysis for fear of giving something away, but even though Ned Stark is dead there are plenty of new characters to whet your nerdy little appetites. So just watch it, K? Sunday 9:00 EST, HBO, and when it’s done flip over to AMC and watch Mad Men because you’re cool and sophisticated. If you don’t have HBO, well that kinda sucks.