And Now My Watch Has Ended: Reflections on Game of Thrones
I first read George R.R. Martin in 2003. Back then, there were three books – A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords, though the old UK paperback edition I was reading split A Storm of Swords into two. The covers, incidentally, were unapologetic fantasy cheese:
You wouldn’t see anything like that today, of course. Modern Martin covers, especially those from the last decade, opt for a more respectable look. This is Serious Grown-up Fantasy, don’t you know, not some low-brow wish-fulfilment exercise.
From 2005 onwards, I tended to spend a decent amount of my online time on ASOIAF forums. Not simply because I liked the books – though I did – but also because it had become, in a sense, one of the defining lights of the genre. Peter Jackson’s original Rings trilogy had finished, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was drawing to its conclusion, and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books had run into problems with pacing and subplots. George R.R. Martin was now the Next Big Thing in fantasy, along with Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, and so it became difficult for genre geeks not to engage with his work. A Feast for Crows appeared in 2005, then A Dance with Dragons in 2011. I read them both when they came out, though I never joined in the mutterings about delays – there are more books out in the world than one can possibly read in a lifetime, so it was not as if I was short of material. The ending to ASOIAF would happen when it happened, and while I think there are pronounced structural problems with the work (Martin is a better short-story writer than he is a novelist), it is not something I angst about. Again: there are plenty of other books, including some by Martin himself, so what does it matter if we never see the ending of this particular series? I actually consider Fevre Dream his best single novel anyway. But I digress.
What turned this important genre work into a popular culture sensation was, of course, the television adaptation of ASOIAF, Game of Thrones. Born at a time when epic fantasy on-screen was primarily associated with movies, it has re-made expectations and conventions. Fantasy television existed before Game of Thrones (Buffy springs to mind), but epic fantasy – high-stakes, secondary world storytelling – was a newcomer to the format. Now television, rather than the full-length movie, has become the go-to form of visual fantasy adaptation, and whatever else one may say about Game of Thrones, it takes a landmark piece of work to overhaul an entire medium.
Because the television adaptation started in 2011, fifteen years after A Game of Thrones first appeared, the early seasons (the ones directly adapting the source material) had the massive advantage of being able to trim the dead-ends that sprinkle the books. The Warden of the East/West stuff is largely dispensed with, since it doesn’t go anywhere. Some of the characters are also significantly improved via adaptation – Samwell Tarly becomes less defined by his cowardice, Robert Baratheon becomes less a lovable oaf, and more self-aware of his failures, and Harry Lloyd’s Viserys Targaryen is infinitely more interesting than the one-note book version. Sure, the television version of Theon Greyjoy does not look like the book Theon, and his failures are played up more, but that’s just nitpicking – as a Theon sympathiser, it’s something I notice, and, by contrast, as a hater of book Jon Snow, I have always preferred the television Jon. If there’s a meaningful character error in those early seasons, I think it’s the portrayal of Littlefinger, who is altogether too overt about his moustache-twirling ways.
Early Game of Thrones, as well-regarded as it was (and is), did, however, develop the now-famous sexposition trope. Plot and world exposition was juxtaposed with sex scenes, presumably as a means of getting the audience to pay attention – we have Viserys detailing some historical dragon information to Doreah in the bath, while Littlefinger infamously describes his personal motivations in the company of a pair of prostitutes. It’s not for nothing that the series became associated with copious boobage (as the Honest Trailer commented, “it’s like a history test with dragons and boooooobs”). This was fine – I am hardly a prude – so long as there was an actual meaningful story to accompany the sex. You can’t hang a story on sex alone, since at that point you no longer have a story, but rather an exercise in pornography (if sincere) or trolling (if insincere).
Game of Thrones never quite sunk to that level, though in some cases it was not for lack of trying. Once the series overtook Martin’s books, the writers clearly began to think that chucking in ever-more overt violence and torture could somehow keep the ever-more jaded audience engaged. They kept the sex too, of course, which meant that torture porn warred with pornographic torture for a fair bit of the later seasons, a situation in no small part due to the writers’ love affair with Ramsay Bolton. Martin leaves Ramsay’s activities much more to the imagination, rather than showing it blow-by-blow for shock value, and I think the books are much the better for it.
Back in 2011, the notion that the television series would overtake the books was seen as unlikely. Sure, Martin had taken over a decade to produce two “linking” novels, which would connect the two halves of his overall series, but now he had those out the way, normal service could be resumed… right? Well, no. It did not work out like that, and the television series famously did overtake the books. This put book-readers like myself in the same position as those who only watched the television version (a strange experience in itself). More importantly, however, it forced the television writers to concoct their own path to the ending.
On one hand, this should not have been as difficult as it was. George R.R. Martin wrote for television in the 1980s, and ASOIAF is structured in a television-friendly manner, what with the chapter twists and episodic nature. One can write for the screen, and still keep to the stylistic spirit of Martin’s text. On the other hand, there were some inevitable obstacles in ‘going solo’ – without the source material, keeping Tyrion’s witticisms consistently entertaining became much harder, while with Tywin Lannister gone, there was no convenient Big Bad to structure the King’s Landing story around. I do wonder if Martin himself has problems with this, seeing as the story without Tywin just isn’t the same.
But, the big problem is this: the television writers did not share Martin’s ability to formulate character-driven narrative. In fact, they clearly did not concern themselves with consistent characterisation at all, preferring instead to focus on set-piece events, and then to work backwards to get the characters behaving in such a way so as to generate aforementioned set-piece event. This in turn begs the question – how are we, the audience, supposed to relate to characters we don’t know any more? When the writers are tap-dancing all over our Willing Suspension of Disbelief? From the viewer perspective, nostalgia for the ‘early days’ and a desire to see how the thing ended became all that mattered. I imagine the re-watch value of the later seasons will be minimal – the shelf-life of shock value is very fleeting indeed.
Which brings me to Season Eight, the recently-completed final season of Game of Thrones. I thought I’d post a little rant for posterity:
SEASON EIGHT SPOILERS
When I finished watching Season 8 Episode 6 last night, my immediate feeling was relief. The story was complete – it might be the only complete version of the story we will ever get – and it was time to move on with my life as a fantasy geek. In truth, I think I had already, but the end of the last season has given me closure, so to speak. I did not even particularly mind the flaws of Episode 6 – after Episode 3 and 5, I had calibrated my expectations sufficiently lowly that I actually enjoyed parts of the finale. Yes, really. I actually liked Brienne’s little note in the White Book.
Taking a step back, I think there are two major issues with Season Eight (there are a host of minor ones too, but we shall get to them). The first is a quite unforgivable misinterpretation of what both book and television series are actually about. The ‘core’ theme of ASOIAF, with all its musings on the nature of power, is that political squabbling is fundamentally unimportant when you have an existential threat on your doorstep. Some things are bigger than politics, and it does not matter who sits the Iron Throne when those things come knocking. Hell, the very first scene in both book and show deals with the Others/White Walkers, and the threat of their impending return. But what do the television writers do in Season Eight? They dispose of the White Walkers… in a single episode, while they move onto the struggle for the throne. Seven seasons of build-up, for a single episode, in the middle of the season. Oh, and the climactic battle is at Winterfell. Not King’s Landing or the South. Winterfell. Which those in the South neither know nor care about. Ugh. Talk about an anti-climax – and, no, what follows is not Martin’s Scouring of the Shire. The Scouring was a “bringing home” of the story, not an alternative climax that undermines the Sauron narrative.
This, of course, begs the question of whether Martin himself will pull a similar trick in the books. We won’t know for certain until he actually finishes, but while I think Mad Queen Daenerys is very likely on the cards, I think Martin will treat the War for the Dawn with the respect it deserves – as the climax, and not a red-herring to be trumped by events in the South. At least I hope he will. We shall see.
The second major issue with Season Eight? That characterisation problem I mentioned earlier comes to full flower with Daenerys Targaryen. I actually have no problem with Daenerys turning into a self-righteous maniac. That’s fair. My problem instead is that her actions in Episode 5 are not a product of organic characterisation. They’re a product of the writers wanting Daenerys to burn King’s Landing in the name of visual spectacle, even if it makes no logical sense.
People have defended the decision, of course, citing Daenerys’ cruel actions throughout the series. The problem with this is twofold. Firstly, other characters perform extremely cruel deeds throughout the story on a regular basis – and yet everyone who isn’t an Unsullied or a Dothraki is (justifiably) appalled by the massacre. It is almost as though there is something that sets the destruction of King’s Landing apart from every other atrocity… that something, of course, being that the massacre was as pointless as it was cruel (Tywin Lannister, a monster in his own right, would come back from the grave to slap Daenerys if he could). The second, and more important, point is that Daenerys’ previous cruelty was always operating in tandem with her self-identity as a liberator of the downtrodden. She kills slavers. She kills Dothraki khals. She kills the Tarlys. In all cases, there is a sense of “avenging justice.” What justice is there here? King’s Landing had surrendered. She was all set to liberate the people from Cersei’s rule… and then, for reasons only known to the writers, massacres the people and leaves Cersei for last.
The crying shame is that the episode could have been written to make sense in character. Have Daenerys destroy the Red Keep, then come out to greet her new subjects, expecting (as always) to be worshipped as a goddess. Have one of the remaining scorpions go off by accident, hurting Drogon. Under those circumstances – with clear “evidence” of betrayal, one can imagine Daenerys seeing red, and deciding punishment is in order. But that would preserve Daenerys as a vaguely sympathetic character, and the writers do not want that. We will see if Martin does better – chances are he will, seeing as he actually understands consistent characterisation.
Daenerys is not the only victim of characters being jerked around to serve the needs of the plot (or, since the plot makes little sense either at this point, visual spectacle). Varys’ actions were out of character – the master-schemer literally becoming an idiot, just so he could be killed off. Jaime’s redemption arc had him getting away from Cersei – to the point where he develops feelings for Brienne – but all that means nought. Grey Worm somehow refrained from killing Jon on sight. Exactly what was going through Drogon’s head when he melted the Iron Throne is anyone’s guess, but my reading of the situation was that he knew that Jon had killed his ‘mother’ and yet refrained from killing him. And so on, and so forth. These have ceased to be characters in any meaningful sense, but are instead slaves to the writers’ will, with the strings so blatantly attached that the audience can only snigger at how forced everything is. And when a character does show consistency – Edmure Tully – he is there simply as a punching bag, to be mocked and humiliated.
There are a host of more specific complaints that can be made about Season Eight. Some of which I’d mention in passing:
- The insanity of Episode 3’s Dothraki charge, when they couldn’t even see the Army of the Dead.
- Bran being a nonentity throughout, and having no qualifications for Kingship whatsoever, but being handed the crown via the ramblings of a prisoner in chains.
- The North seceding when there is a Northern King… yet Dorne and the Iron Islands staying put.
- The inherent problems with an Elective Monarchy go completely overlooked (real-life Elective Monarchies tended to result in puppet Kings or become de facto hereditary).
- Samwell being Grand Maester, so not marrying Gilly after all?
- “The Red Keep has never fallen” – Cersei, with Gregor Clegane behind her.
- “I’ve never known bells to mean surrender” – Davos, in an earlier season.
- Davos telling eunuchs to start their own Houses.
- The gloriously funny loose-end of Sweetrobin Arryn (‘make him fly’) still ruling the Vale, and presumably now being the most eligible bachelor in Westeros.
Be that as it may, there is one final problem I would cite. This is arguably the equal and opposite problem to Daenerys’ actions not being properly set up – namely, the treatment of Jon Snow. Now, as I have said before, I am not a fan of book Jon, though I am fine with the television version. I am also fine with him ending up with the Wildings – it’s a better ending than having him become the predestined King. My problem is that if you are going to have prophecies, and a Rhaegar/Lyanna backstory, it actually needs to have a point. Daenerys is action without build-up, but Jon is build-up without pay-off. Rhaegar’s actions – which caused a war, and destroyed a dynasty, were, in the end, for nothing. Jon was for nothing, an unfired Chekhov’s Gun. And that’s poor writing in anyone’s book.
And now my watch has ended.