When Did the Recap Replace the Review?

Not a real post here. Just a question that’s come up again in my brain. Said question came up several times when I was watching last season’s “Game of Thrones.” Come to think of it, I was probably pondering the issue during last season’s “Downton Abbey,” too. Lots of controversy in both those TV shows of late, and since Television Without Pity folded in May, I’ve had to slog around to discover who’s thinking what out in there in Internetland. (I suppose I could just have a look on Twitter, but that can be an even worse trudge, with less actual information and more chances to enter the conversation and become an offensive idiot.)

So last week, the latest season of “Doctor Who” began, and it’s a seriously transitional season: a brand new Doctor is taking the helm and the companion is staying on. This is the first time current show-runner Steven Moffat has had to deal with this specific situation. Last week, I thought everyone involved did a brilliant job, but this week I wasn’t so sure how I felt. (To be honest, I thought large portions of this second episode were pretty damn cheesy. My husband, Inspector Spacetime, has now banned me from watching the rest of the season with him. Spoil sport.) After the episode ended and Inspector Spacetime and I had a robust argument over the cheese content of the story, I did what any red-blooded insomniac laptop user would do, left my husband sleeping on our bed, and came to wander the Internet for Official Opinions on the TV show I just watched.

Inevitably, as I scrolled through screen after screen of links, I bumped into many, many recaps. Maybe six or seven recaps for every self-proclaimed review. That’s when I realized I was thinking the same thought I’d had when I went looking for material on “Downton Abbey” and “Game of Thrones”–namely, why the hell does every blogger do so much recapping? I’ve just seen the goddamn episode. I don’t need anyone to repeat back to me the contents of my last TV experience. Long ago, broadcasters handled that themselves in the form of reruns. I want to know what other people think about shows. I want analysis and observation and–dare I say it–argumentation.

Granted, I used to love reading funny recaps, and I often read them on Television Without Pity or its predecessor, Mighty Big TV. But as far as I can remember (and this was almost fifteen years ago, so my memory might be getting a tad hazy), the writers who put together those recaps were acting as commentators, picking out zany details and explaining references and weaving spontaneous-sounding jokes as they summarized, so the whole thing felt like a written-down version of Mystery Science Theater 3000. That’s not an easy thing to achieve, no matter how effortless it appears on the page.

Now, apparently, we have a huge horde of people who have gleaned from those old TV sites that recapping = funny and are now acting on that insight by carefully documenting what goes on in a particular show week after week. The problem is, the reason why the old recaps were funny (and I’m sure some current recappers have a handle on this, too) is that they weren’t just summaries of what happened onscreen. A simple summary of a show would be a transcript, and if you think transcripts are fun reading, you clearly haven’t encountered a lot of court documents in your day.

No, the old-style recap, the kind that started the genre, is a comedic work of art. It makes you laugh till you cry. It makes you want to re-watch the show to see for yourself the goofy glitches the recapper caught and you didn’t. It does not simply plod through the scene-by-scene antics of the kitchen staff and then dutifully list every one-liner fired off by the Dowager Countess. Why the hell would anyone want to read that, except if they happened to miss the episode, and in that case, why do we have DVRs and HBO GO and On Demand and all the other technological doodads we have nowadays to make sure we don’t miss a single second of any video event anywhere in the world?

Seriously, folks. Have we, as a culture, probably the most literate in history, become so rushed, uncaring, or dumb that we would rather have a writer repeat a TV show back to us than hear what she might have to say about it? Are we too terrified to enter into discussions these days, for fear of starting flame wars? Or is it just that “recaps” are much easier and faster to write than reviews, the way “listicles” are easier and faster–and thus more profitable–for the impoverished freelancer to produce than detailed reportage?

Oy. Now I think I don’t want to know the answer. I’m going to toddle off to bed before I depress myself more. Carry on with your recapping, kids. If some of you have deeper thoughts to contribute, please put them in a helpful section on their own, so I don’t have to waste precious seconds reading my TV shows.

Game of Thrones and Rape TV: Alternatives to Reality

This is a follow-up to the discussion of last week’s rape scene between brother-sister pair Jaime and Cersei Lannister. Before I go any further, I’ll issue the always necessary alert:

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

although not too many, because at this point I honestly can’t wrap my head around the many, many changes this week’s episode has made to the plotline established in the books. Really, it hurts my brain.

So on to brighter topics–by which I mean much more depressing topics. In the What-Will-Come-of-the-Jaime/Cersei Rape? pool: for those of you who said “Nothing,” you win! This week’s episode contained not even the briefest mention of how Jaime forced his sister to have sex on the floor of the sept beside their dead son. Instead, he (Jaime, not dear little Psycho-king) is shown offering Tyrion moral support, giving Brienne knightly gifts to show how much he respects her, and talking about what a monster Cersei is. It should come as no surprise that Cersei’s rape would be a one-off action soon forgotten, since the director of the episode, Alex Graves, said in an interview that the rape “becomes consensual in the end” (http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/review-game-of-thrones-breaker-of-chains-uncle-deadly). That’s right: it’s the end of the act that counts. Just like muggings. (Of course, we all know about how muggers get acquitted via the in-the-end defense, as in: “After I beat the shit out of him and shoved a knife against his throat, he just gave me his wallet. So in the end, the wallet transfer was completely consensual.)

It seems many viewers and commentators have forgotten about the previous episode, too. Salon.com, which published no less than seven articles last week on Jaime and Cersei, rape in Game of Thrones, rape culture, and the portrayal of rape on TV, today published only an interview with the man behind Westeros.org and a recap called “Quietly Noble.” Who or what does that title refer to? Jaime Lannister. (The author’s position basically boils down to: yes, Jaime raped his sister and threw Bran out a window, but he’s a really good character. http://www.salon.com/2014/04/28/game_of_thrones_recap_quietly_noble/)

Apparently, then, some out there in TV land, after a week of tense debate, are now willing to drop the whole rape thing and move on to other shocks and outrages. Frankly, I’d love to move on, too, if I didn’t feel so damned awful for guessing that there would be no repercussions from the rape scene, that Cersei’s assault would be used as symbolic shorthand for how messed up Jaime and Cersei’s relationship is, and that this week the writers would push that Universal Amnesia Button they love to use in TV, and all the viewers would be transported to a slightly different catastrophe. Deep in my heart, I was hoping that inserting a violent sex act between Jaime and Cersei, an event that has not occurred in the books so far, would do something different and permanent to the characters or the relationship between them. But no–as I predicted, this week we have the same drunk, bitter Queen Regent, and the same clean-cut, quietly noble Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. Sometimes, it sucks to be right.

Even so, I’m determined not to wallow in cynicism over this whole thing. No, I’m not going to boycott Game of Thrones. I already read all the books, so technically I know what’s coming (if the show doesn’t go too gonzo with the storyline alterations) and I realize how brutal life is for humans, regardless of sex, in George R.R. Martin’s universe. But I’d also like to be able to keep watching the series without bile rising in my throat every time King’s Landing, or Jaime or Cersei, pop up on my screen. If you’re like me and could appreciate an antidote to Game of Throne’s latest case of Trivialized Television Rape Syndrome, here are my recommendations:

1) Remember that in the books, Jaime and Cersei have consensual sex by their son’s dead body. Sounds strange, I know, but if you want to feel better right away, this is your best bet: simply purge your memory of what you saw on TV last week and replace it with the sex-in-church scene Martin originally wrote. Because what he wrote was a consensual sex scene–rough but consensual. (The moment in question is helpfully excerpted here: http://www.avclub.com/article/rape-thrones-203499.) I could go on to point out that Martin’s version of the incident clearly demonstrates how perverse Jaime and Cersei’s relationship is without the need for rape. I could also point out the little details that show the subtle yet important differences between how a person communicates consent or lack of consent. (Saying “yes” or “no,” for example.) But I’m trying to stay positive here, so I’m going to assume no one reading this is confused about any of these points. (Or at least, I’m going to try not to imagine the alternative.) So, we’re all good, right? Okay. Deep breaths. Moving on…

2) Consider this “rewrite” of the Jaime/Cersei scene by Dan Abromowitz: http://imgur.com/gallery/9iCHB/. Here, Jaime and Cersei are re-imagined as if they (and we) lived in a Perfect World. Note that despite a bit of the “What’s the big deal?” argument bubbling up here and there (an argument that I don’t support), Abromowitz does categorically state that what Jaime did (or, in this version, almost did) to Cersei was a) rape and b) wrong. After I (unwisely) read multiple comment boards discussing the Jaime/Cersei controversy, this little bit of historical re-creation really hit the spot.

3) Read Alyssa Rosenberg’s take on this week’s episode from her Washington Post blog: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/04/27/game-of-thrones-review-oathkeeper-and-broken-vows/. [WARNING: CRAZY MEGA-SPOILERS FOR NON-BOOK READERS AND THOSE WHO DIDN’T SEE LAST NIGHT’S SHOW!] Rosenberg has been blogging the Game of Thrones TV series with an eye to (but not necessarily a focus on) what appears in Martin’s books, and she claims to be thrilled to see so many giant changes in the TV plotline. Her argument is that now she’s just like any other viewer: if a character gets into unexpected peril, for example, she now has no idea what will happen, nor will she automatically recognize places and events. In the case of Jaime and Cersei, Rosenberg saw a complete disconnect between the former lovers the morning after the sept scene:

Less interesting than the gap between the showrunners’ and director’s description of the rape scene is the one between Cersei and Jaime. Disturbing as it might be, it seems entirely possible that Cersei believes she was raped, while Jaime believes that what happened between them was consensual.
She cannot resolve that, or any of the other unresolved things that lie between them. But Cersei can shut a certain gate on their relationship.

I have to admit, I saw no trace of any acknowledgment of the rape in either Jaime’s or Cersei’s dialogue or behavior in the scene Rosenberg analyzes. But I’m really glad that someone saw something. And something substantial enough to make me wonder about my own response. Even though the incident deserves more, a little tremor of recognition, of pain, over Jaime’s turn is good enough for me.

4) Don’t stop thinkin’ about tomorrow. In writing up this blog post, I did recall something in the books–a revelation that’s still off in the distance from where we are now–that might be made more comprehensible by Jaime’s actions in last week’s episode than Martin originally envisioned. I emphasize might because the distinction would be very subtle and, as many critics and non-critics have already observed, Jaime has a whole cesspool of bad behavior in his history that would probably explain a revelation of yet more bad behavior just fine. No, I’m not going to spoil the moment in question. But I will say this to the Game of Thrones writing team: Guys, you are so much better than last week’s controversy. You aren’t a bunch of soap opera writers from the 1970s. You’ve worked so hard to make so many of Martin’s female characters more complex, from Cersei who now has a gravitas she never had in the books, to Sansa who’s dignified instead of infantile, to Shae who now has both a personality and a backstory. I realize the fourth season has already been filmed, but I’m praying hard to the Narrative Gods that you really do know what you’re doing, that I can trust that rape was added to the show with forethought and not flourish. Otherwise, winter in Westeros is going to be very bleak indeed.

“Game of Thrones” and Rape TV

[As this is my first post on a TV show, and TV in general, I’ll add the obligatory

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

although at this stage of the game, unless you’ve been a coma for several months, just regained consciousness today, and stumbled across my blog because you went to Google and mis-typed the word “pickle,” I don’t see how any of the following will come as a surprise.]

Since the latest episode of “Game of Thrones” aired on Sunday, the Internet has been bursting with commentary on a certain scene between certain incestuous twins who, while mourning over their sadistic love spawn, become so embroiled in emotion that the man in question decides to rape his beloved sister/lover. There’s also much controversy about a certain series of 1500-page books in which this scene appears but contains one crucial difference: the sex is consensual. There are many, many, many articles floating around in the ether right now (I won’t go into the details here, but if you google “Game of Thrones” you’ll find them–no need even to use the search term “rape”), but I’m more drawn to the comments section, as non-cultural-critic citizens debate the issues surrounding the seemingly gratuitous use of rape in a show that depicts rape, murder, child endangerment, torture, mutilation, and castration on a regular basis. One remark that always leaps out at me–and many, many commenters have argued this–is that outrage over this single scene, in the fourth season of a tremendously violent show, is baffling. How, the commenters ask, is Cersei’s rape any worse than Jaime throwing 10-year-old Bran out a window, or stabbing Robb Stark’s pregnant wife in the belly, or cutting Catelyn’s throat and throwing her in the river?

For me, this objection boils down to: what’s the big deal with rape? It’s not like Cersei got killed, right?

I think what these commenters miss, in their blissful unawareness of social history, is that for centuries women have been taught, have believed, that death is preferable to being raped. At least in death, the twisted logic goes, your body remains pure and unviolated. As a raped woman, you’re damaged goods, you’re permanently defiled, you’re undone. The most available evidence I have for this fact happens to be on the floor near where I’m sitting: my handy Norton’s edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare. And since it happens to be Shakespeare’s 450th birthday tomorrow (really??? I hadn’t heard!), we might as well have the Bard have his say on this age-old issue.

Exhibit A comes from Titus Andronicus, in which Lavinia is raped and mutilated as payback for her father’s actions against a rival family. Here’s Lavinia begging Queen Tamora to have mercy on her:

O Tamora, be called a gentle queen,
And with thine own hands kill me in this place.

‘Tis present death I beg, and one thing more
That womanhood denies my tongue to tell.
O, keep me from their worse-than-killing lust,
And tumble me into some loathesome pit
Where never man’s eye may behold my body.
Do this, and be a charitable murderer.
(TA 2.3.168-9, 173-8)

That’s right, commenters, Lavinia would rather be murdered than raped. That may not be Cersei the character’s feeling on the matter, but it does speak to how incredibly traumatic, disgracing, and dehumanizing rape was (and often still is) to women in particular.

Exhibit B is Shakespeare’s long poem The Rape of Lucrece, which tells the story of a Roman woman who is raped by the king’s son and immediately thereafter commits suicide. Her violation and death lead to the violent overthrow of the tyrannical royal family and the establishment of the Roman republic. Not many people are familiar with this poem, but if you have read it you know that Shakespeare can’t be accused of making rape into a B story. Lucrece’s pleas to her rapist and her ruminations after the event take up some 700 lines, while the details of the rape appear in one seven-line stanza. Even though on a broad level, this story has to do with what happens when the public realm forcibly invades the private, it’s very clear that Lucrece feels she’s worthless if she lives on as a ravaged woman. She says as much here:

The remedy indeed to do me good
Is to let forth my foul defiled blood.

Poor hand, why quiver’st thou at this decree?
Honor thyself to rid me of this shame,
For if I die, my honor lives in thee,
But if I live, thou liv’st in my defame.
(Lucrece 1028-33)

Lucrece’s husband and other male relatives beg her not to harm herself, tell her that she’s not at fault, but she already knows what her society thinks of her:

With this they all at once began to say
Her body’s stain her mind untainted clears,
While with a joyless smile she turns away
The face, that map which deep impression bears
Of hard misfortune, carved in it with tears.
“No, no,” quoth she, “no dame hereafter living
By my excuse shall claim excuse’s giving [ie, would forgive herself based on that excuse].”
(Lucrece 1709-15)

Of course, these days, NO ONE believes people who are raped should commit suicide or would stand by and let a suicidal rape victim take his or her own life. (And, as a side note: any rape survivor who feels in any way suicidal should call 911 immediately.) Still, the truth of the matter is, even today, many rape survivors feel the guilt of their assault rests on them. Victim-blaming still exists, and rape survivors–even those that no one has ever had the audacity to blame–still feel the weight of this on their shoulders.

I don’t have to tell you that rape culture is bad, even though it’s still with us, or that idea of rape is still used as a form of terrorism against women. I have a friend who works in the billing department for a cable company. She’s said that when she calls people who are behind on paying their cable bill, customers will often tell her “I hope someone rapes you.” Yes, my friend gets threatened with rape just for reminding someone that they’re not paying for their goddamned TV. So is it such a surprise that many people–men and women–don’t think that rape should be treated lightly in TV shows, or shoehorned into an already batshit-crazy story just for a little extra shock value? For its survivors, rape isn’t just a big deal. It’s a life-altering, trauma-inducing, universe-shattering deal. Viewers affected by rape are going to see rape in this light, not as just another building block in a He’s Still an Asshole plot, or a Will This Make Him Snap? plot, or a She’s Much More Sympathetic Now plot. Hopefully someday, a critical mass of viewers will convince TV executives that using rape as throwaway drama, like a lover’s quarrel or a car accident, is simply not okay.