A Discourse on Communication and Storytelling: Romantic Nihilism | Part II

Art work by Danielle Pajak Illustrations.

In my previous post, I outlined the flawed narrative structure of the conclusion of Game of Thrones. I focused primarily on Daenerys and how her story did not communicate effectively what Benioff and Weiss were wanting to accomplish with her, i.e. her becoming “Mad Queen” Targaryen. I then asked what it was that they did communicate through her story. Here is where I would like to begin.

As an artist and visual storyteller, I have become exceedingly grieved and disgusted with a lot of the stories in our entertainment today. Every one of my favorite shows one right after another ended in disappointment for me. I asked myself, why? Why were all these amazing shows, many of whom have exceptional talent working on them, crashing and burning, in my less than humble opinion? I believe the answer is multi-faceted, but I am going to zero in on one aspect for the sake of time and my argument. In short, cynicism and a nihilistic world view have poisoned the storytelling landscape.

I mean I get it. You only have to open your social media or major news page and you can find tons of reasons to bemoan the state of our society, our country, and the world. I understand the disappointment, the bitterness, the seething rage — I get it! I have felt it myself! I know precisely how everyone is feeling because I am feeling it too. I know that feeling of being utterly useless to help or stop any injustice or wrong from happening. The struggle is real.

However, the struggle is not all there is, and I believe that is the crucial thing to remember because something much more sinister than our own despair is happening, which is that we are coming to love our despair. Our bitterness and anger is becoming a part of how we are defining ourselves every day. Suddenly instead of these ideas and attitudes being recognized as the poison that they are, we drink it like it is sweet nectar. And to me that is exceedingly more grieving than feeling negative emotions in of themselves. We all feel negative emotions, we all feel the pain of life to one degree or another. This is a part of life, but to actually redefine and look upon those attitudes and thoughts as beneficial, glorious, and wise? That is the truly terrible thing.

Art work by Danielle Pajak Illustrations. Title: which is the Chinese pictogram for “beauty”.

Now let us dig deeper into what I mean. If you recall from Game of Thrones Season 4 where Tyrion tells Jaime the story about their cousin Orson Lannister. He describes how in his simpleness, Orson would crush beetles all the day long, and Tyrion became obsessed with divining why Orson was doing this. He felt there had to be a reason, that there had to be some meaning behind what he was doing. Obviously, this story is an analogy. What Tyrion was really expressing was the aged old question, what does it all mean. I will paste the discussion below:

Tyrion: […] In any case, I found nothing that illuminated the nature of Orson’s affliction or the reason behind his relentless beetles slaughter. So I went back to the source. I may not have been able to speak with Orson, but I could observe him, watch him, the way men watch animals to come to a deeper understanding of their behavior. And as I watched, I became more and more sure of it: there was something happening there. His face was like the page of a book written in a language I didn’t understand, but he wasn’t mindless, he had his reasons. And I became possessed with knowing what they were. I began spending inordinate amounts of time watching him. I would eat my lunch in the garden, chewing my mutton to the music of “kun kun kun”. And when I wasn’t watching him, I was thinking about him. Father droned on about the family legacy and I thought about Orson’s beetles. I read the histories of Targaryen conquests. Did I hear dragon wings? No, I heard “kun kun kun”. And I still couldn’t figure out why he was doing it. And I had to know because it was horrible, that all these beetles would be dying for no reason.

Jaime: Every day around the world, men, women, and children are murdered by the score. Who gives a dusty f*** about a bunch of beetles?

Tyrion: I know, I know, but still it filled me with dread. Piles and piles of them, years and years of them. How many countless living, crawling things smashed, dried out, and returned to the dirt? In my dreams, I found myself standing on a beach made of beetle husks stretching as far as the eye can see. I woke up, crying, weeping for their shattered little bodies. I tried to stop Orson once.

Jaime: He was twice your size.

Tyrion: He just pushed me aside with a “kun”, kept on smashing. Every day. Until that mule kicked him in the chest and killed him. So what do you think? Why did he do it? What’s it all about?

Jaime: I don’t know.

This here is a perfect encapsulation of what I have observed in so many of our stories of late, stories which by their very nature are asking that aged old question, what does it all mean. Benioff and Weiss have just expressed it with a heavy hand here, while other writers and artists have a more subtle approach.

To make it clear what I am talking about, I want to draw a parallel between Tyrion’s story and what happened with Daenerys Targaryen. In this story, the audience is Tyrion — we are drawn to the story of Daenerys like Tyrion was drawn to the story of Orson. We were enraptured by her struggles as a character and divining the meaning of her story just as Tyrion sought to know the why of Orsen’s actions with the beetles. I mean isn’t that what we do as fans? We love going online and theorizing with other fans about what is going to happen, why it is going to happen, observing all the details of the plot and character arcs. We love seeking things out!

I cannot remember where I heard it, but it was in something I watched where they pointed out that audiences love to discover things on their own. They like being able to feel like they figured out something, that they found out something the writer had hidden or perhaps may not have been aware of. There is excitement in exploring the story, just as Tyrion was enthralled with understanding the truth and meaning behind Orson’s beetle slaughter. Yet what happened after all of Tyrion’s study, observations, ruminations, and questions? What happened to us the audience when we came to the end of Daenerys’ story? What happened to all that time and effort spent in watching, theorizing, and discussing? Despite Daenerys’ struggle as the underdog in her own story suffering abuse and pain — despite the awe of witnessing dragons coming to life from dormant eggs — despite all the lessons Daenerys learned as a ruler through her mistakes — all of it came to nothing. Just as Tyrion never divined the meaning behind Orson’s senseless slaughter, so we came to the end of Game of Thrones, having gained no beneficial understanding by our journey. Mad Queen Targaryen. Jon kills her. Orson gets killed by a mule. All the world burns. Beetles die for no reason. The End.

So what do you think? Why did he do it? What’s it all about?

I don’t know.

Game of Thrones isn’t the only show with these problems. In the FX show Legion, David Haller, the protagonist of the story, is suddenly twisted to become the show’s villain. He’s been Daenerys Targaryen-ed.
Trish Walker from Jessica Jones Season 3, also Daenerys Targaryen-ed.
Dolores Abernathy is very much a character like Daenerys. She has a “righteous” cause that she pursues with vengeance. “These violent delights have violent ends.” If there ever was a show that glorifies nihilism it is Westworld, but I could do a whole other post just on the failures of Westworld.
This one is from a movie (it isn’t only in tv shows) and it is a little more subtle, but Professor X in Dark Phoenix was suddenly twisted as this arrogant douche who was controlling and manipulative — the “idol” of the X-Men school brought low. The “idealistic delusion” of Professor X as a heroic leader unveiled to show us the true frailties underneath! *GASP*

As you can see within the very fabric of Benioff and Weiss’s writing, nihilism pervades. It isn’t just in Daenerys’ story, but scattered throughout the stories of Game of Thrones — i.e. how Jaime Lannister went from redemption story to dying under a pile of rocks. Yet not only is nihilism pervading, but it is being romanticized, like there is something profound and powerful in its telling — like we are achieving some enlightened ideal in heralding its tenets. Many storytellers, not just Benioff and Weiss, have become just like that whole scene where Tyrion goes underground and discovers the dead bodies of Jaime and Cersei. Observe how the whole sequence was filmed in excruciating reverence, as we watch Tyrion walk through one ruin to the next. It is a sobering moment, almost holy in how it is filmed — Tyrion’s silent pilgrimage as he approaches the thing he has dreaded most…

Remember how I mentioned in my previous post that every aspect of the cinematic arts is communicating something? The dialogue, the lighting, the way something is framed, what is shown vs what is not shown, the music, the colors, etc. I would encourage you to rewatch this scene and pay attention to how Benioff and Weiss are wanting you to feel as all these elements are spun together. And when Tyrion does finally arrive, after seeing Jaime’s golden hand amongst the rubble, Tyrion expresses a kind of ritualistic act as he removes the stones one by one, uncovering the truth. Oh, the existential dread! Tyrion weeps and thrashes in the horror and pain of it all! Woe, woe, woe! How powerful, how terrible, how divine!

Observe the way Jaime and Cersei are orchestrated here. Despite being crushed by an onslaught of incredibly heavy stones and rocks, they are pictured here in peaceful and reverent positions — something akin to a Renaissance painting. How does that make you feel when you look upon it? The gentle, diffused white light, the atmosphere of ecclesiastical reflection — it is romantic, is it not? It is showing a glorified ideal! Behold the profundity of the nothingness!

Do you see what I mean? There is this glorification of showing the meaninglessness of life, of uncovering “the truth” that this life is full of ugliness and pain, of unmasking our delusions, of showing that there is always “someone behind the curtain”, our idols become monsters, our heroes become villains, it was all a lie, it was all a sick cosmic joke — and this is what empowers us and makes us wise. Oh, look how discerning and insightful we are as we reflect back to you the despair of a twisted humanity!

Me to Writers about how they believe their cynical worldviews are working in their stories:

Now, I am not at all saying that stories cannot speak to the ugliness of this world, because there is truth in ugliness. There is pain, suffering, dread, brokenness, disillusionment, bitterness, anger, hate, and a myriad of dark and terrible things. I am not saying we should only tell feel-good stories where everyone lives “happily ever after”. No, what I am pointing out is an attitude that many storytellers have towards that ugliness. All artists have an obligation to speak to all truth, but there is huge difference between telling a story about ugliness vs making making that ugliness seem romantic. There is a difference between showing how life feels arbitrary and meaningless vs saying life is meaningless and arbitrary. There is such a big gap there.

So, I speak to all storytellers now: you are not profound for making statements about the despair of reality. You are not wise. You are not enlightened. It is easy for anyone to despair. It is much more difficult to rejoice in the face of that despair. It is easy to grow in bitterness and disappointment, much more difficult to believe in hope in the face of that disappointment. It is easy to observe ugliness, much more difficult to discern the beauty underneath, within, and despite it. And so that is what it really comes down to — it is easy to write a story like Daenerys “Mad Queen” Targaryen. It is easy to have her twist her own ideals and dreams into the dying screams of a burning city. It is easier to tell a story where a character falls than it is to tell a convincing and realistic story of redemption. It doesn’t require any work — nihilism is the lazy man’s philosophy. If all is meaningless, if nothing truly has any value, then that means you hold no responsibility to anyone or anything. It means you do not have to change the way you are doing things, that you can coast, lay back, and just watch the world burn. You can pat yourself on the back for being “woke” and not falling for the opiates of the masses. You don’t have to do any soul searching. You do not have analyze your own world view or assumptions. You don’t have to work at trying to understand what life truly means or try to find the purpose amidst all the chaos. There is no truth except the truth of nothing, therefore you are free to do nothing without guilt or shame. Nihilism is one big fat existential cop out!

Therefore, I say to all artists, storytellers, writers, showrunners, and creators — stop dishing out this crap for audiences to eat and get off your lazy asses and get to work!

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