A television series’ identity, in this age spreading dawn’s rosy rays on the demands of niche audiences, is often a matter of differentiation. You have to make choices based on the resources you have, of course, and with a view to the goals and universal laws of your series, but also with consideration as to how those choices stack up against other shows addressing similar issues. TV series sort of get to be their own genres, accruing concerns and conventions that are repeated and varied until a well of expectations exist in the mind of the viewer.
For example, the ending of last week’s episode of Mad Men – Don slumped in daze of malaise in front of his apartment, out of synch with the unforgiving symmetry of the composition, a song of barbed significance coming on over the credits – feels as stock at this point as a high noon shootout. Now, no other episode, to my memory, has ended precisely this way and not every episode ending finds Don as puppy-dog lost as he is here. But it is a generic thing – the ending feels like the ending to the idea of the typical Mad Men episode I have in my head, one that will never fully play out on screen in its entirety (a very Mad Men concept itself). So newcomers that tread the same ground harrowed up by Mad Men have to contend not only with the baggage of their particular show format, distribution method, and/or series setting, but with the generic legacy of very successful, culturally impactful shows that are similar too. How do you differentiate the sci-fi frontier of Defiance from Firefly? How did Parks and Rec free itself from the shadow of The Office?
Sometimes that prime act of differentiation is as simple as having Mark Harmon as the lead of your forensic procedural, as opposed to Gary Sinise (RIP CSI: NY). However, last Sunday the planets aligned for a one-night-only triple set from three violent, pseudo-historical period pieces, and I wish they all could’ve spent more time on the air together. Looking at how Game of Thrones, Spartacus, and The Vikings all define and differentiate themselves, each is very openly stylized in a way that complements the overall identity of each particular series. There’s a lot that could be said, but the way the shows handle their combat sequences is a nice, concrete way of approaching the issue.
You can’t match Game of Thrones for scale or production value, and there’s no two ways around that. The show’s second season received a budget in excess of 60 million, nabbed gore-maester Neil Marshall (of The Decent and Centurion)to direct last year’s all-battle episode “Blackwater,” and utilizes locations already complete with ruined castles and weathered battlements by shooting in Northern Ireland and Croatia (and Malta, and Morocco, and Iceland, too). It has the money to be cinematic in the Cinerama sense, with an omniscient, roving eye and massive sets, faceless hordes and ‘hero’ extras, CGI and FX. The production value is lavish enough to be photographed more or less as-is without looking silly or small-time, and that’s actually kind of a huge deal for a TV series.
Yet, if you look at “Blackwater,” what’s noteworthy is how little time the speaking cast spends physically fighting. The battle is more like a madly spinning top being poked and prodded. The tension and suspense is in seeing on what side, Lannister or Baratheon, it will eventually land on. Most of the truly gruesome and explicit, although not hyperrealistic, violence happens to the redshirts on both sides, and one suspects that is part of the series’ point about power struggles. The emotion comes in as the consequences of these massed armies hacking at each other bear on characters from, largely, the removed, ruling elite, not through the martial prowess and passion of warrior-leads. We keep cutting back to Cersei getting increasingly drunk and hosting an uncensored course on Queenship with Sansa that gets more horrific as she loses hope, while the fortunes of the Lannisters hang on Tyrion’s nervous courage. The most triumphant moment is his heroic speech in the third act that undercuts traditional battle heroics.
The other most memorable moment, is the explosion of Wildfire, an impersonal thing of pure visual spectacle that both sets the tone but in many ways dwarfs all the action that follows. And that’s Game of Thrones for you – it’s immersed in impressive scale, staging, effects, and a conventional (read: compares favorably to film) style of combat cinematography, but the emphasis is still on the scales of power and where, exactly, those will balance out in relation to the characters we care about.
On the other end of the spectrum, Spartacus can do more with less, and with more flair, than pretty much anything else on TV. I’ve talked before about how its embrace of the most hyperreal, artificial tools in the cinematic apparatus translates to an outpouring of emotion and a statement of character agency. Spartacus can lemur-leap seven feet in the air to strike a man on horseback and slow down the camera’s speed because his desire to remove Crassus’ head from his body is so intense it transcends the laws of physics. People don’t just bleed when cut, they are fucking pressurized hydrants of blood and constrained passions and desperate hopes. The show became exceptional when it figured out how to marry stylized physical spectacle to emotionality, and distinct by how it was, at its best, able to crank both all the way up to 11.
Spartacus never had the budget for good looking, naturalistic production values (mo money, mo armorers with no fingerprints from making so much chainmail) and turned instead to green screens. But the show utilized that technology and played with depth in really interesting ways. Often, a character’s expression is highlighted and slightly detached from both an artificial, filtered atmosphere and the ubiquitous, synthetic blood-spatter. So the ‘truth’ in the frame is the emotion conveyed by the actors even as the relentless visual spectacle elevates action to an Elysian plane of fucking badassery. Its combat is personal and cathartic where Game of Thrones’ is global and machination-driven. It’s anchored, of course, by quieter dialog scenes that establish the relationships and desires the cast of Spartacus work out through sex and violence. But in terms of combat, overt stylization – whether it’s ramping (it’s always ramping), CGI-enhanced exsanguinations, whatever – actually serves to bolster the melodrama of the series, not undercut it.
By Jupiter’s cock, the final showdown between Spartacus and Crassus is nothing but a font of full-throated emotion, complete with cutaways to those most loved and lost by the Thracian, yet it’s amazing how pared down (comparatively) their duel is, rhythmically punctuated by groans and the grinding of steel. There’s plenty of the show’s signature CGI splatter. But in the end, we have two men, their faces slick with congealing blood, spittle dangling from their mouths, and their desires, ideologies, and wills finding vent against the other. The fight is entrancing, brutal, and holds triumph for our hero without retconning his inevitable fall. The beauty of Spartacus is that it has serious, often very tender, things to say about love, personal dignity, and freedom, yet it expresses those ideas through ripped warriors killing and fucking their way across Italy.
This brings us to The Vikings, the freshman beginning to come into its own, with combat sequences that are often more assured and interesting than anything else in a given episode. What’s so wonderful about this series is the way it differentiates itself through an unadorned visual efficiency. Its style is workmanlike, as mechanical and percussive as a well-oiled piston. Vikings likes to have at least one extreme long shot of the entire crew engaged in hand-to-hand fighting, but it’s sort of like watching ants burrow through the sand. The gore is less, obviously, than premium cable, and no subjectivity has yet crept into the combat cinematography itself. But the stakes are hardly Machiavellian. The vikings come. They raid. They take gold. Off they sail again. Ragnar Lothbrok’s mad, calculating smile continually obscures his plans and motives from us as well as the bumbling Northumbrians.
Vikings has a more sociological ax to grind than either of its cable kindred, portraying a culture of brutal, entrancing mystery clashing with the Christian worldview we’re familiar with. So it makes sense that battles are most interesting when they’re dealing with group dynamics: the discipline and coordination of holding a shield wall, even the ritualized, personal combat between the Jarl and Ragnar is ringed by people, not the stands of an arena. And the cinematography largely reflect this: fighting’s played in real time, without trickery or awe-inspiring staging, and shared among the raiding party of grim, almost dispassionate warriors. Well, there’s Floki. But the point here is The Vikings doesn’t try to weigh combat down with import beyond immediate survival or the acquisition of wealth. No rallying cry, no value statement, no historical ripple effect. It’s death as a way of life.
It’s really special all three series, making very different cinematic decisions about a similar visual issue, got to share a night of programming. I’m not sure I even want another show to try and replicate the distinct stylization of Spartacus, but period series will continue to develop and bring new strategies to our small screens. Genres, and television shows, survive by varying themselves, after all – redefining and reacting to what’s gone before and surprising us with fresh perspective. To paraphrase a man who no longer exists, that is all a cable showrunner can do.