The nostalgia-industrial complex: What "Game of Thrones" teaches us about TV's obsession with the past

Successful television only revisits history that it can remodel from top to bottom

Published June 16, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Kiefer Sutherland in "24: Live Another Day," Sophie Turner in "Game of Thrones," Toby Huss in "Halt and Catch Fire"    (Fox/HBO/AMC)
Kiefer Sutherland in "24: Live Another Day," Sophie Turner in "Game of Thrones," Toby Huss in "Halt and Catch Fire" (Fox/HBO/AMC)

Nostalgia blurs the vision and twists the senses. It takes hold of the ego and drives said ego to its high school reunion, where the ego has awkward conversations with old people over lukewarm plates of flavorless beef stroganoff. Nostalgia wastes time cruising Facebook for chumpy ex-boyfriends. April nostalgia brings May unwanted pregnancies and June ’80s-themed parties.

Why do we long for long-forgotten times? It’s clear we can’t go back, or really do anything but sally forth, fearlessly, into the future. Take as your talisman Damon Lindelof, who has put the messiness of “Lost” far behind him and forged forward with “The Leftovers,” the exact spooky-mysterious montage of ominous images and apocalyptic scenarios that generally plays so well on premium cable. Will he wrap this one up with hugs and tears and a messy pile of unsolved mysteries? Who cares? It’s based on a book by Tom Perrotta! Look, there’s Jennifer Aniston’s forever lover, behaving just like Rick from “The Walking Dead”! See how it’s done? You get up to the speed with the times and you ape that style for all its worth, even if that means resisting the pull of the past.

Nostalgia is the enemy of the modern. And especially in TV land, if you’re caught lovingly refurbishing “This Old House,” you are dead meat. TV likes new stuff. TV wants you to demolish the charming kitchen in favor of black granite countertops and a double-wide stainless steel fridge, pointlessly large, humming quietly, jacking up your electricity bill beyond all reason. TV nourishes its plucky orphans just long enough to sell them into sex slavery.

Speaking of plucky orphans, though, who didn’t think that Jon Snow and several other longtime favorites would get ripped from limb to limb in the “Game of Thrones” finale? When young heroes are proclaiming, “We will defend Castle Black to the death!” what you imagine immediately is not victory for the righteous, but Jon Snow being disemboweled as a gleeful gaggle of Wildlings, giants and wooly mammoths look on.

In spite of being perhaps the most nostalgic lover of J.R.R. Tolkien ever to have lived (down to his middle initials!), George R.R. Martin has reinvented the medieval fantasy genre from the ground up. The “Lord of the Rings” books were like a very old house that Martin bulldozed to build a sprawling architectural wonder. Sure, he keeps a stained glass window from the old house in his kitchen, to show guests -- “Look, everybody! Swords, dragons! Just like ‘The Hobbit’!” – but he does so with an ironic (slightly demonic?) glint in his eye.

Because, despite the nostalgic adornments, the very guts of “Game of Thrones” are thoroughly modern – upsettingly modern, in fact. The glory and heroism of old-timey medieval fantasy have been replaced by a nihilistic destruction of every Tolkeinian trope. And after last season’s Red Wedding, we could only assume that the second-to-last episode of the fourth season would see Snow’s throat slit by the pretty little redheaded girl he had a crush on. Likewise, Sam would be sliced and diced and served to the mammoths, and his girlfriend and her baby would be thrown from the top of the wall. Not that it’s not a tiny bit unsettling to see your redheaded girlfriend pierced through the heart before your eyes, and to watch her die in your arms while she assures you, with her last breath, of your smallness in a cruel universe. “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” Ouch. For “Game of Thrones,” though, that amounted to the feel-good episode of the season.

This made us even more certain that the heroic and the honorable would suffer shoulder-to-shoulder with the round and the awkward and the scrappy on last night’s fourth season finale. Blond queens and petulant imps alike would fall! Dragons and physically disabled children and Hodors would suffer in equal measure!

Our one hope, of course, was that somehow, some way, they wouldn’t kill Tyrion Lannister. “Please please please don’t kill Tyrion!” those of us who have avoided Martin’s books just to savor the surprises of the TV show collectively gasped, hoping against hope that this one small man would dodge a terrible fate. And while we waited for Tyrion to have his head crushed or his eyeballs popped out or his entire body flattened like a pancake, Wiley Coyote-style, it was hard not to feel nostalgic for the good old days, when Tyrion would sit around drinking wine and fondling naked sex workers and saying the word “WHORE WHORE WHORE” over and over again in his lovable Tyrion way. Who else could make that word sound faintly affectionate instead of repellent? Who else could wed a beautiful teenager and not only never touch her, but respectfully tolerate her revulsion for him?

No one wanted Tyrion to die. But it was maybe even more shocking to watch Tyrion seek revenge on his former lover and his father. And who didn’t feel a rush of rage upon hearing Shae murmur, “Tywin, my lion”? Martin may favor a pretty gruesome, chaotic world, but after piling indignities on the undeserving, he doesn’t mind putting one or two pretty satisfying revenge fantasies into motion. And let’s go ahead and give a big, old-fashioned standing ovation to DB Weiss and David Benioff for knowing when to veer away from Martin’s text in order to maximize dramatic impact. Cersei informs Tywin of her incestuous relationship with Jaime (not in the books), right before Tywin is shot by his own son with a crossbow while on the toilet? The Hound is bested by Brienne (not in the books), then begs for mercy from Arya? And instead, Arya walks away, says the magic word to a stranger from Bravos, and then sails to distant shores, triumphantly?

Weiss and Benioff crafted a truly heart-stopping and satisfying finale that never felt melodramatic or overwrought. Hell, even the chained dragons and the prophetic mystery man telling Bran that he’ll fly came off perfectly. The first season of “Game of Thrones” definitely felt like a book awkwardly translated into a TV show. But now? It’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job of translating such an insane labyrinth of nostalgic storytelling into a captivating drama.

* * *

In another universe, Jack Bauer is still alive, too, despite his relentless efforts to be blown to smithereens by a wide range of terrorist masterminds and clandestine domestic agencies. But modern times haven’t had much impact on Jack. While he’s on the run from The Man, does Jack try out a funky new hairstyle or facial hair configuration? Does he lose the T-shirt or the messenger bag that was so popular way back when Miley Cyrus was running around in pajamas with feet? Nope. Jack Bauer never changes a thing.

Maybe that’s why “24: Live Another Day” has only proven to most of us that “24” shouldn’t have lived another day after all. The show’s nostalgic return to the small screen has not proved nearly as popular as the original, drawing in 6.33 million viewers, a far cry from the 12-13 million viewers it drew in the olden days.

Times have changed. In the olden days, becoming a giant TV hit was as easy as flying a nuclear warhead over Los Angeles and letting a cougar loose on Kim Bauer. These days you need Catelyn Stark, chopping off her own daughter’s finger, just to get a measly 1.6 rating. You need Chloe O’Brien with a bad haircut and Cirque de Soleil eye makeup. You need Audrey Raines, married to Jimmy Cooper from “The OC” but still dissatisfied enough to press her forehead into Jack’s and whisper to him about how dearly she misses their sex play, which involved Jack, handcuffed to the bed, still able to snap teddy-bear terrorist necks with his bare thighs.

I love it when Jack pretends he’s in love, don’t you? He uses the exact same scratchy whisper he uses when he’s threatening to injure but not kill an uncooperative Storm Trooper type. It’s funny how “24” always wants to put Jack Bauer in romantic scenarios, considering the fact that Jack falling in love and Jack eating a hamburger and Jack choking the life out of a terrorist with his bare hands all look roughly the same. Same unnervingly blasé rasp, same expressionless face, same meaty, grippy hands. Can you imagine Jack laughing out loud or rolling his eyes or serving up some premium Claire Danes-grade cryface?

But that would be too modern. Jack doesn’t do modern. Even the central scenario of “24: Live Another Day,” which seems modern on the surface – drones! – devolves almost immediately into the same old Dr. Evil routine. Instead of really questioning what kind of an unhinged nation would engage in robotic global assassinations, “24” whips out the old vengeful terrorist type (her back story ripped straight from “Homeland’s” vengeful terrorist with a dead son), surrounded by the usual bland henchmen plus one flinchy second-guessing son-in-law. Drones, for “24,” are just another way to blow up the president.

Likewise, for Fox, Catelyn Stark, robot assassins and Chloe’s weird eye makeup are just like stuffing Marilyn Monroe into a pair of skinny jeans. No matter how much attention they attract, those skin-deep modern disguises can’t hide a deeply self-indulgent and somewhat pointless compulsion to repeat the past.

* * *

If awards were given out for Most Nostalgic TV Show Ever, though, AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire” would win, hands down. Because not only does this TV drama nonsensically present a fictional account of the rise of personal computing (“Look, this guy is faintly Steve Jobs-like! Hey, this other dude must be Steve Wozniak! But who’s this punk rock programming lady? Did Jobs leave her out of his autobiography?”), but it also takes special pleasure in dredging up clunky old cars, bad hairstyles and great old songs by the Clash. Indeed, a good 70 percent of the pleasure of watching “Halt and Catch Fire” can be derived simply from saying to yourself, “Hey, look! She’s playing Centipede!” and “Man, remember when cans of Dr. Pepper used to look like that?”

You young folks don’t realize this, but we old people are nostalgic for the early ’80s because things were much, much easier back then. If you wanted to, say, reverse-engineer an IBM computer, all you had to do was stay up late solving a lot of math problems and after one dramatic zapping, voilà, you’ve done it. High fives all around!

Next, you saunter into the office where you work and convince your hotheaded boss to back your play. See, back in the ’80s, people used to refer to “a plan so crazy it just might work” all the time, not because this phrase was a cliché, but because plans that were totally crazy almost always did work back then. These days, though, even the craziest of plans involve lots of paperwork and lawyers and publicists and vetting and second-guessing and rescheduling, until all of the crucial “crazy” is filtered right out.

One other thing about the olden days that you need to know? People had sex with strangers a lot – usually standing up, usually in the nearest broom closet. Unless they were Mel Gibson, in which case they had sex standing up in a hot tub, to a smooth-jazz saxophone solo.

Even with so much sexy ’80s action in the mix, though, it’s hard to get too worked up over “Halt and Catch Fire” so far. “Mad Men” may have convinced AMC to rename itself the Nostalgic Workplace Drama Channel, but even the unquestionable charms of Jobs-like men humping blond lady programmers in broom closets and old Boz Scaggs hits can’t save this show from the mundane nature of its subject matter. The characters are cartoonish and the scenarios and the dialogue aren’t compelling enough to keep our attention. When the words “You’re just a salesman!” are passed off as a zinger, you’re in trouble.

“Halt and Catch Fire” is the exact opposite of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” Where Mike Judge’s comedy brilliantly lampoons the hilarious stupidity of the current tech industry (“Because if we can make your audio and video files smaller, we can make your cancer smaller, and hunger smaller, and AIDS,” murmurs a tech CEO on “Silicon Valley”), “Halt and Catch Fire” celebrates tech myth-making and hype like it’s the most romantic thing since sliced French bread. The writers adorn every dull meeting with ego clashes and grandiose gestures, exalt every tiny advance, and just generally treat their characters like valiant superheroes.

It’s true that getting a Speak ‘n’ Spell to say your daughter’s name is pretty brilliant. But I have a feeling that part is fictionalized. See how far TV nostalgia will go to distort the past?

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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24 Editor's Picks Game Of Thrones Halt And Catch Fire Jack Bauer Nostalgia