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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.