HBO’s Game of Thrones may well be the biggest success television has ever seen. It has reigned supreme as a pinnacle of storytelling and a wonderful subversion of well-defined tropes and cliches, and has served as a shining example of how to construct a powerful narrative with meaningful characters…
And then the last three seasons happened. This is where I’ll give fair warning: I will be discussing events from the most recent episode of Game of Thrones (the season 7 finale), so continue at your own risk, for the night is dark, and full of spoilers.
Let me set the record straight before you sharpen your pitchforks and come for my head: I still very much enjoy HBO’s epic fantasy, but with their deviation from their rock solid source material, the show’s cracks have become more and more apparent as the seasons go on. From the beginning, Thrones has been a show that has put people before spectacle. Go back and watch seasons 1-4, and you’ll notice a distinct lack of action throughout a large number of the episodes. We focus more on characters, their relationships, and the wicked political game of Westeros. What got me so passionately attached to the show was its grounded look at fantasy, and the abundance of character moments that drove the show early on. A distinct “lack of Hollywood”, if you will. The show has never been about dazzling set pieces for the sake of spectacle; everything that happened was in service to the narrative. The Red Wedding was a shocking set piece that made sense and fit into the narrative of the War of the Five Kings; a sound tactical decision by Tywin Lannister that was justified, logical, and fitting for his character. The incredible Battle of the Blackwater where Stannis lost his fleet to the wildfire? The whole battle was littered with quiet character moments that gave the situation gravity.
These later seasons, on the other hand, seem to have shifted away from spectacle in service of narrative, and have instead moved towards a narrative that serves spectacle. Season six, Cersei seizes control of the Throne by destroying the Sept of Baelor. This whole sequence is incredibly well-paced, beautifully shot, and musically scored to perfection; an incredible spectacle. Come season seven, we see absolutely zero repercussions for her actions. It’s almost surreal how everyone accepts her rule following a heinous terrorist attack on her own city. “I rule because I blew up the competition” seems like a flimsy justification for the Throne at best, yet we see no political discourse aside from a quip or two of throwaway dialogue along the lines of “We all saw what happens if you cross her!” Alright… I guess she’s queen now? The whole fiasco felt like an excuse to kill off as many side-characters as they could fit in one room in a sloppy attempt to wrap up loose ends. Oh, were you interested in that compelling sub-plot with Margaery and Olenna Tyrell staging a conspiracy against the crown and the High Sparrow? Well, the show-runners certainly weren’t. Cool explosion, though.
Consequences have become irrelevant. This show no longer punishes its character’s mistakes. Ned Stark was killed because he didn’t understand the political game. Robb was killed because he married the wrong person, and was punished for it. Tywin fell victim to his own pride and it became his undoing. We see characters making these same mistakes, yet the consequences are no longer present. Game of Thrones has lost its grit. Arya walked off multiple stab wounds with no explanation as to how following her utterly mindless encounter with the Waif in Braavos, they’ve literally turned Jon Snow into Westeros Jesus, Jaime charged alone at a full grown dragon and came out unscathed. For a show that has always prided itself on being a relatively realistic depiction of fantasy, it seems to have strayed a long way from its roots.
The issue seems to stem from the overall quality of the writing taking a nose-dive. You’ve seen me use the term “character moments” a couple times now, and I’ll explain what I’m talking about. These are scenes where we see characters grow and define themselves. We get glimpses of understanding written in a way that is captivating and that makes sense. The early seasons are packed full of these moments, and they’re the scenes I remember most vividly when looking back on the series. These are scenes like Jaime’s monologue in the bath or Littlefinger’s famous “Chaos is a ladder” speech. They’re also found in more subtle scenes, like the scene I linked earlier between Sandor and Sansa, or back when Arya was likable and relatable. Now, everyone just delivers bland exposition at each other, or experiences harsh character shifts that don’t follow their arcs (looking at you, Arya).
That scene also brings to light another aspect of Thrones that has gone the way of the dodo: compelling antagonists. As far as I’m concerned, Tywin Lannister is this show’s crowning achievement. Charles Dance deserves recognition for bringing to life a “villain” with realistic motivations. He’s logical, he has plans that are firmly grounded in reality, and he has strong justification for his actions. Everything he does makes sense, and everything he does fits his character’s narrative arc. He’s not a blind caricature of evil akin to Joffrey or Ramsay Bolton. He’s calculating, firm, and understandable. He steals every scene he’s in and commands respect with every line of dialogue. This show was at its best when it had antagonists that were more compelling than a madman with a torture fetish. You could argue that Joffrey was that caricature, and that’s true, I’ll grant you that, but he was never the driving force behind what challenged our characters. He did awful things to people in his direct vicinity, but the larger conflicts that drove the story were orchestrated by the larger players like Tywin, Littlefinger, Varys, Olenna, and a host of other more compelling characters, all in moral gray areas where it becomes difficult to define who is necessarily “evil.”
I understand why this shift is happening: the series is hurtling to a finish, and they need to wrap things up quickly, but that sense of haste makes these supposed payoffs often fall flat. These payoffs have never felt so hollow than the death of Petyr Baelish in the most recent season finale. I can say that this is one of the few times that Game of Thrones has demonstrated such lazy writing as to be downright infuriating. For seven seasons, Petyr Baelish has been probably the smartest character in the series. His manipulation of the political landscape of Westeros has been masterful, and his delicate house of cards has been built meticulously over the course of the show. The payoff to his masterful scheming? Petyr pleading for his life on bended knee (completely out of character) in front of the character that he has done most wrong to. And how did this downfall come about? Not through character flaws, not through a detailed narrative, but because Bran is a super-computer that can read the script. Nothing about it felt earned or worked-for; it all feels so cheap. It’s justice porn cranked to 11, it’s an unsatisfying conclusion, and it represents all the tropes and cliches Game of Thrones worked so hard to redefine early on. We all thought Robb Stark would rise up and avenge his father, and he was butchered. It’s not trying to be satisfying for the sake of the audience, it’s logical. It was writing that made sense. Now we have a seven-man Suicide Squad marching beyond the wall on an army of thousands, suffering only two casualties (not including some nameless extras), in service to a half-baked plan with no ties to reality. There was no reason for anyone to think that this “show Cersei a zombie” plan would be successful, and it’s even more contrived and detached from reality that it even remotely worked. The script is bending over backwards to set up these ludicrous plot points. These characters are acting nonsensically in order to set up a large battle and a cool set piece. Narrative serving spectacle.
I do still love this show, don’t get me wrong. Every now and then, Game of Thrones still strikes gold. We get those character moments I adore so much, but they’re so few and far between. Theon jumping ship when he began to revert back to Reek was a great moment, and the Hound burying and eulogizing the father and daughter from season four was subtle and touching. It’s a character transformation that makes sense, and one that is still infused with Sandor’s traits and flaws. Cutting his prayer short with “Fuck it, I don’t remember the rest” is wonderful character writing. He’s changing, yet he’s still very much Sandor. That’s the kind of writing that used to infuse every scene in the show. The spark is still there, and every now and again it shines.
I want to love this show like I used to, and at times I do, but I’m frustrated. At other times, I get flashbacks to The Walking Dead, and how much of a mess AMC has made following such a strong start. While Game of Thrones hasn’t fallen apart quite so egregiously, the dip in quality is quite noticeable. With one season left, I find myself fearful of the downward trend the show has been riding, and hope it doesn’t spiral out of control in these closing episodes. We’re in the home stretch, HBO. I want to believe that we’ll finish strong. Color me cautiously optimistic.
Winter is here. Let’s make the most of it.