Relationships finally get more complicated on TV

Critics Notebook Odd Couples
Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Hound (Rory McCann) in “Game of Thrones.”
(Helen Sloan / HBO)
Los Angeles Times Television Critic

Humans are hard-wired to seek symmetry, and nowhere is that more obvious than on TV.

From the days of “The Honeymooners” onward, most everything there boils down to pairs. In recent years these have come in three basic varieties: romance, bromance and BFFs. Two people forced to work/live/parent together battle their way through their differences until they become best buddies. A man and a woman bicker and bait each other until they fall in love. Friendships of youth are tested by the twists of time and maturity but invariably prove unbreakable.

Ensembles exist, but their ranks are inevitably defined by courtship — the female bonds of “Grey’s Anatomy,” the Jane Austen-approved ending of “How I Met Your Mother.” “Modern Family’s” convention flouting did not extend to including a singleton sibling, and even the alpha-male posturing of “True Detective” ended, in “Casablanca” fashion, with love conquering all and the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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Increasingly, however, television is making room for relationships that side-step easy sentiment to explore the other ways in which we bind ourselves to each other. Some are new, made possible by the breakdown of old prejudice — non-romantic male/female partnerships, the intermingling of races and sexual preferences — while others are simply more sophisticated depictions of the many emotions that exist outside the rosy realm of “lerve.”

On “Elementary,” Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu’s modern iteration of Holmes and Watson could, eventually, end in a big clinch, but two seasons in, they remain a prickly and working partnership. On “Homeland” the mutually wary working relationship between Carrie (Claire Danes) and Saul (Mandy Patinkin) took center stage last season, while “Breaking Bad” pushed the teacher/student, faux-father/son template through a mirror darkly.

The clones of “Orphan Black” come in clusters and redefine sisterhood; “Sleepy Hollow’s” equally attractive Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) and Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) are united by fate but not longing, and the partnership of Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) and Red Reddington (James Spader) on “The Blacklist” is untouched by the sadistic sexuality of the Clarice/Hannibal bond on which it seemed, at first, to be based.

Nowhere, however, is this new breed of partnership more visible than on “Game of Thrones.” Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his knight-errant captor Brienne (Gwendoline Christie); Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and his freelance bodyguard Bronn (Jerome Flynn); even Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and Hodor (Kristian Nairn) have relationships that cannot be defined with one word. Taken together they are the driving force of the show.


And none beat Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and her string of unlikely allies. Whether Arya becomes a key player in Westeros politics, or even survives her own story, is up to George R.R. Martin, but she has certainly upended a cart full of television traditions.

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She entered as an archetype, a classic tomboy, Scout Finch with a direwolf, preferring swords to silks, the company of men to women. Three seasons later, Arya understands the sword, and the world of men, all too well, having witnessed the beheading of her father and the desecrated body of her brother, brutally murdered along with their mother. She herself has survived squalor and slaughter through her wits and her ability to work with what she has — a group of fellow slaves, an assassin who owes her a debt, even the brutal Lannister mastermind Tywin. As Season 4 opens, Arya is the “hostage” of the Hound (Rory McCann), formerly the King’s chief thug who once murdered Arya’s best friend. The Hound now hopes to ransom her to her aunt.

Over the course of their still unfinished journey, they have each saved the other’s life and forged a bitter but undeniable bond through deed if not words. Watching Arya kill her first man, the Hound acknowledges both the pain and the pleasure; though aware of his past, Arya continues to search for some dormant seed of morality in the Hound. Together, they have the kind of mutual understanding that too often is mistaken for love.

In “Game of Thrones,” few things are mistaken for love, and that is one of the main reasons it is so successful. Behind all the fantasy trappings and the brutal parents, the endless tally of inter-family slights and the war of the Five Kings, “Game of Thrones” is a celebration of unlikely alliances that explore the hybrid emotions too often ignored by television in favor of palettes bright or dark.

Some of this is simply a function of logistics. With his sprawling cast and teetering stack of storylines, Martin and then the creators of the HBO version had to do something to organize plot and showcase character development. And if you are chronicling a quest, be it to revive chivalry (“Don Quixote”), flee your drunken Pap (“Huck Finn”), destroy the one ring of power (“Lord of the Rings”) or sit on the Iron Throne, you can’t go wrong with the odd-couple alliance.

Unlikely connection is also one of literature’s Big Themes. Since the beginning of time, we have comforted ourselves with tales in which what first seems alien proves to be kin. We want to believe that, all tangible, historical and cultural differences aside, humanity is essentially a force of attraction and unity. It’s the look of mutual admiration or pain between two warring soldiers, the friendship that springs between children of hostile races, the love that grows between a couple so different they initially can’t stand each other.

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There are certainly relationships that fit within this rubric on “Game of Thrones” — Jon Snow and the Wildling warrior Ygritte, Daenerys and her Khal Drogo — but many more defy the dictates of sentiment that television and indeed popular culture have for too long taken as a given. Jaime and Brienne met more as fellow warriors and misfits than man and woman; Tyrion’s relationship with Bronn began as a matter of business and to a certain extent remains that way. Hodor and Bran are essentially two people made one.

The show’s respect for and use of children also broadens both the scope of cast and story; it removes romance from the equation in a way that is liberating. Women especially benefit from stories that explore the sort of tensions and attractions that do not need to end in bed or declarations of unending sisterly devotion, but it’s equally good news for men, who can, one hopes, shake off the tedious tyranny of “bromance.” Coined to describe the once-revolutionary idea that men can love each other in nonsexual, nonwarrior ways, bromance has become as much a narrative crutch as romance.

We turn to television for escape, but paradoxically that holds us only if there is an essential emotional connection. As with Arya Stark, we find the people we need in this life as often as we find the people we truly love, and we do what we can to understand and accommodate their strengths and weaknesses. With those choices we define our world and ourselves, and move humanity’s story forward. Through winter-clenched forests, along roiling rivers and urban streets toward whatever understanding dragons, clones and complicated crimes may help reveal.

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