Will We Ever Be Satisfied With Game of Thrones?
Welcome to Thrones season: new pieces through the eighth and final season on April 14. Spoilers through the end of Season 7 and episodes of Season 8 aired by the time of publishing. You can see all Thrones coverage, including that from Season 7, here.
Every episode of Game of Thrones, especially in the last two seasons, is subject to a deluge of podcast breakdowns, Twitter analyses, and hypercritical think pieces (of which I am *occasionally* guilty).
Complaining about the writers has become something of a perverted tradition when it comes to any fantasy-based TV show – the writers are dumb, they don't understand the canon, their plotlines are either too simple or too complex, they force moments instead of letting them progress naturally, blah blah fucking blah. The fanatical viewership has become excessively vocal with their perceived ownership of the show, as if it is something that belongs to them, something that the showrunners best not 'ruin'.
And to be sure, there are a number of genuine criticisms of the show when it comes to plot and character development, some of which I've been quick to point out myself. But the level of I-want-to-speak-to-the-manager entitlement has risen to unprecedented levels, extending to hatred of showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss themselves, the vitriol spraying all over anything they have to say in their interviews Behind the Scenes segments. And while they don't do themselves any favors (they're like Kyrie Irving: great in the game, but better off skipping the postgame press conference) with their short quotes that are easily removed from any surrounding context, I don't like to assume incompetence. It's extremely hard for me to believe that the biggest television production in history has a writing cast completely devoid of any canon-nerds or people who don't understand basic storytelling elements. Every moment that we collectively agonize over was likely the subject of meetings and e-mail chains and extensive discussion, every choice was deliberate.
Take the Battle of Winterfell (Season 8, Episode 3), one of the all-time polarizing episodes. Asking why the battle mechanics were all fucked up is fine, until you realize that literally none of the significant characters involved has any significant experience commanding an army in the field, especially against, you know, dead people (Jon's all-time best battle idea was to use a 'pincer' move, which… didn't work). The decision to make Arya the Night King's killer was also heavily criticized, with the suggestion that it should have been Jon (talk about cliché), which ignores the fact that Arya has spent literal seasons training to become an assassin (if this wasn't her purpose, then why is she even still around). It was even suggested that the battle should have taken place during daytime so it would be easier to see what was going on!! While to some extent the customer is right – the pre-Melisandre moments were annoyingly dark despite cinematographer Fabian Wagner's protests that it was all intentional – the dude is called the Night King, not the fucking Day King.
Or take the arc of everyone's favorite dwarf, Tyrion Lannister. Much has been made of his apparent stupefication over the last few seasons. After all, how could someone not consistently make smart decisions for eight straight seasons? It's completely unreasonable to expect that Tyrion – whose major moments of cleverness included things like pigshit and… witty quips – would be a master strategist when it comes to deploying troops over an entire continent, or not have a blind spot when it comes to his own family. He is someone who has always been driven by emotion, but made decisions based on cleverness. His arc is consistent in that theme, especially considering his adoration for and subsequent blindness when it comes to Daenerys.
The unrelenting commentary has even stretched down to the inane, including how it was possible that a Starbucks cup made it to the final cut (something which most people didn't even notice, and HBO quickly fixed), or how Jaime and Brienne were awkward (as if you'd expect a sexual interaction with a virgin and someone who's only slept with their sister to go smoothly), or how the crossbows are a bit too accurate (they were built by Qyburn, who literally brought someone back to life from a fatal poison), or how Jon didn't pet Ghost goodbye (despite the obvious fact that he didn't want to prolong the sad interaction), or how Missandei wasn't an important-enough death (again, a DRAGON was just murdered).
Much of this sentiment has come from show-watchers that style themselves as omniscient directorial geniuses, those whose profession is seemingly to foster outrage. Naturally, it's cool to say that something used to be good, but you're not really feeling their new stuff. But the vast majority of this sentiment comes from a faction known as the 'book readers', a deranged elite cult of people who have, uh, read the books upon which the show is based and consider George R. R. Martin's bathwater to be the nectar of immortality. That they have read the source material apparently makes them far better qualified to give artistic direction for adaptation in a completely different medium.
On the whole, it might be more helpful to look at the show as a standalone work. Besides the fact that by necessity, George R. R. Martin will take a different route to the finish line (if he ever gets there) in the books, the show is subject to constraints that the books don't really have. Martin has had over two decades to put out five books, and he has routinely failed to meet deadlines for the sixth book since 2011's release of A Dance with Dragons. Meanwhile, the showrunners had nine years to put together eight seasons, the latter three without the choice to take a nice long pause like Martin's original story has opted to do. Lambasting the show for not being along the lines of how Martin would have written it or being inconsistent with throwaway lines in Martin's expansive universe is the laziest and the most unproductive of criticisms, because Martin hasn't written it. He hasn't written anything in *checks notes* eight years! It doesn't matter what he would have done! He didn't do it!
And Martin, while a great world-builder, has his flaws as his writer. He can build out characters as beautifully as JRR Tolkien can describe a wandering road that leads to a forest inhabited by a tree-man, but when it comes to actual things that happen, he is certainly lacking.
His overabundance of sex scenes comes off like the fever dream of a thirteen year-old mid-masturbation – remember, Theon was forced to participate in Ramsay's rape, something which the show smartly avoided. And people complain that arcs like Daenerys bailing out the wight-catchers (the Suicide Squad?) in Season 7 are ridiculous deus ex machinas, but as far as convenient plot devices are concerned, Martin is king. In the books, there are legendary objects like the Horn of Joramun (which can bring down the Wall?!) and a Dragon Horn (which can control a dragon?!?!), and a gamebreaking character called Young Griff aka the true Aegon Targaryen (whose introduction is, for all my Eragon fans, as ridiculous as finding a trove of Eldunarí on Vroengard). Martin's writing style has the potential to introduce a person or plotline that can become staggeringly important or killed off completely in the span of a few dozen pages, which is narratively exhausting.
But instead of acknowledging that their sacred texts share some of the 'problems' they accuse the show of having, book readers stand firm. You can trace their outcries all the way back to the treatment of Stannis Baratheon: the ultimate book vs. show litmus test. Memorably, Stannis burned his own daughter because Melisandre convinces him that a sacrifice of king's blood (which runs through Shireen's veins) is required to give him a chance in the upcoming fight with Ramsay. His wife Selyse promptly commits suicide, most of his men desert him, and Stannis still proceeds to attack Winterfell and lose badly, eventually getting decapitated by a freshly arrived Brienne. In the books, Ramsay Bolton claims to have captured Stannis, while his wife and daughter are still at the Wall. Many a book reader will complain that the show performed a full character assassination of Stannis, that he would never have burned his own daughter alive or led his army into a battle they had no chance of winning. All of this ignores Stannis' actions up to that point – not too long ago, he killed his brother using dark magic without so much as a second thought! Everything he has done is in service of his genuine belief that he has the best claim to the Iron Throne as the oldest (and now, only) surviving brother of the late King Robert. He has proven to be a true fanatic – he didn't mind that his own Maester despised Melisandre, and had a sexual relationship with her with the blessing (or outright ignorance) of his own wife (!). It's a natural conclusion to his arc, but because the moment was different, it was vilified as 'bad writing'.
Martin also has yet to come up with a primary antagonist, something that the show had to take the initiative to do. The Night King is purely a show invention, and a good one at that. In the books (*puts on top hat*), there is no such character as the Night King – there is the Night's (note the apostrophe) King. But even in the books, he is not a present threat. He is a historical figure, the 13th Lord Commander of the Night's Watch (whose name has been obliterated from the record books so no one may speak it in Voldemort-esque fashion) who fell in love with a woman who was (presumably) a White Walker, married her, and ruled the Nightfort at the Wall for thirteen years before being defeated. Of course, none of this (beyond the name) matches up with the show's characterization of the Night King, because he was invented specifically to be a threat. And while the eventual unceremonious treatment of the Night King's history and motivation was something that bothered *me* personally, it's because *I* wanted the Night King to have a rich mythology that somehow gave some nuance to his plan beyond wanting to kill everything and bring an endless night. But that's not necessarily the 'right' way to tell the story. It's somewhat fitting, in retrospect, that the leader of a mindless murderous army ended up being mindless and murderous (and nothing else) himself. It's not how I would have written it, but I'm just a dude with a blog who has too many opinions. When I write my epic fantasy series, I can have those things in there if I think they're right.
The consistent barrage of hate against the show ignores several show-only moments and arcs that were *definitively* better than how they were presented in the books. For example, Robb Stark's wife was not Jeyne Westerling (a character who is barely 'on-page' in the books and actually survives the Red Wedding), but instead a nurse named Talisa (with whom he had excellent chemistry). Lady Stoneheart, a half-resurrected Catelyn Stark, was omitted in favor of keeping around Beric Dondarrion (another Stark revival would have just felt cheap). Instead of having a 'fake' Arya Stark (yeah it's dumb even when you read it) stuck in Winterfell married to Ramsay Bolton, it's Sansa Stark. King-Beyond-the-Wall Mance Rayder, instead of secretly being alive due to a masking spell (along with an equally-irrelevant baby swap), was actually killed when he was burned alive. Arya got to interact with Tywin Lannister, because he was stationed at Harrenhal instead of boring-ass Roose Bolton. They decided to actually show the epic events at Hardhome, which occurred entirely off-page in the books.
On top of these larger arcs, a good portion of what we see on-screen, even before we ran out of book material, was completely new. Every scene without one of the 'POV' characters – like the 'chaos is a ladder' conversation between Lord Varys and Lord Baelish, interactions between King Robert Baratheon and Queen Cersei Lannister, seeing Stannis in battle, any scene with Robb that doesn't include Catelyn, any Olenna Tyrell vs. Tywin Lannister conversation, Brienne meeting Arya for the first time, the temporarily-heartwarming Stannis-Shireen scene – was a pure show invention, and extremely effective at that. We can go on and on and on – Martin's story is sprawling and oftentimes bloated, and the show's conscious decision to change things up (bye-bye, Victarion Greyjoy, Quentyn Martell, and Young Griff) isn't always bad. We don't need several hundred pages of Brienne and Podrick dicking around up and down Westeros to be adapted for on screen use
Change doesn't have to be scary. This isn't to say that the show is definitively better than the books, or vice versa. It's more so to – in light of the incessant evocations of the show's lesser moments – highlight the successes of the show where the books went awry. And it's easy to lose or forget about all of these moments when you're busy being upset with how they handled the most recent episode and how it deviated from your expectations and frame-by-frame desires. Sure, we may come back in two weeks and say that some of the decisions were, in retrospect, actual mistakes that should have been handled differently for the sake of *narrative* clarity and believability. But performing a postmortem while we're just halfway through the season is like peering over Martin's shoulder as he staples together loose pages of his unfinished manuscript – the story isn't over just yet.
So be sure to tune in for my piece following next week's episode, "55 Questions About Episode 5."