I’ve enjoyed the latest season of Game of Thrones, but not like I enjoyed the first few seasons; more like I enjoy binge watching Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. There’s something about heroes rushing headlong into battle against impossible odds and managing to pull out an unlikely victory at the last moment that just never gets old. It appeals to my inner child. Yet this isn’t the same show that began six years ago.
That’s not to say it’s bad, there’s some still some great storytelling going on, it’s just different. Let’s examine how and why it’s changed:
(Obviously Spoilers Abound! Do not read unless you’ve seen the latest season!)
Lord of the Thrones:
How High Fantasy Came to Westeros
Many people began noticing changes this season, but in reality these changes have been happening for the past three seasons, it was just far more subtle before. The teleporting Sand Teens, the increasing use of magical resurrection, character surviving unsurvivable situations; these are all things that began cropping up years ago. Yet we dismissed them before as mere hiccups in an otherwise amazing series, not recognizing that these were doomed to become the norm.
So what’s changed?
Characters No Longer Create the Story
One of the reasons the Red Wedding was so shocking, in both book and show, is that even as tragic as it was… it made sense. Looking back at Robb Stark’s character and the actions he took, it was almost inevitable that he would meet his end there at The Twins.
Robb, like his father, had a sense of personal honor that he refused to compromise on to even the smallest degree. And also like his father, it was that sense of honor that eventually doomed him to failure. It began with his agreement to marry Walder Frey’s daughter which he should have done immediately to cement a powerful, and much needed, political alliance. Yet he also didn’t love the girl, and his nagging sense of honor kept him from marrying the girl, hedging his bets and promising to marry her later.
Later after a successful battle against the Lannisters, Robb seeks the execution of Lord Karstark, one his most loyal and powerful bannermen. Rather than giving him a lesser punishment that would satisfy feudal honor and allow all sides to save face, Robb went with what he thought honor demanded.
Then Robb meets a medic and falls in love with her. Then, after having had sex with her, his honor demands that he marry the girl he loves. Which he does, and his fate is sealed.
All of this comes into play at the Red Wedding. Walder Frey doesn’t care that Robb is in love with another girl. Robb could have married Frey’s daughter and taken his new love as a mistress for all old Walder cared. But to shun his royal-blooded daughter to marry a peasant not even from Westeros was a slight he was never going to forgive. Had he married Walder Frey’s daughter at the first opportunity, this could have been avoided.
Yet Robb might have survived Walder’s plot… had he still had the support of the Karstarks. Without Karstark’s support the largest part of his army was no longer devoted to Robb, and none came to rush to his defense when the trap was sprung.
This was all in keeping with Robb’s character however. This is an example of how his character’s actions propelled the plot and created one of the most shocking moments in the story, but it’s not the only example. Every event in the early seasons of Game of Thrones could be traced back to a character’s actions.
Compare that to Tyrion’s plan to capture a white walker. This is an event that makes no sense given what we know about the characters.
It’s hard to point to any two characters who hate each other more than Cersei and Tyrion. Tyrion has always been one of the best characters in Game of Thrones, and not just because Peter Dinklage excels at the role. He’s one of the few characters who is both cunning and compassionate, who can be as ruthless as any of the villains, but who can also temper that ruthlessness with mercy. He had Tywin’s political and strategic acumen, but his life as a dwarf hated by everyone also gave him an empathy that the rest of the Lannister’s lacked.
The Tyrion Lannister that was once the Hand of the King, who outplayed Cersei at every opportunity (until she dispensed with subtlety and tried to have him killed in battle) would never have suggested a stupid mission. Not with everything he knows about Cersei’s character.
Cersei is a shortsighted, sadistic and selfish sociopath who doesn’t care who she hurts as long as her family is safe. I’m sure no one in the audience believed that Cersei would agree to a ceasefire no matter what evidence was produced, so why did Tyrion, the man who knows her best?
Trick question, he wouldn’t. Yet the plot needed several things to happen, and so Tyrion betrays everything about his character to suggest a ridiculous idea. Why? Well because…
The Plot Now Creates the Story
Despite my earlier crack about the Sand Teens, I’m not that bothered by the teleporting people and fleets and dragons (I just really hated the Dorne plot). Even as egregious as it was in that penultimate episode, because honestly, that kind of geographic trickery is necessary if you want to keep the story flowing. Can you imagine the headache of trying to figure out what Cersei and Jaime are doing while Daenerys’s fleet takes three months to sail from Dragonstone to the north? There would be so many “six months later” and “meanwhile…” cuts in the show that it would butcher the pacing and utterly confuse the audience.
No, the problem is the plot is now creating the situations its needs to resolve its story, rather than the characters advancing the plot through the character’s actions. Tyrion’s suggested mission beyond the wall accomplished several critical objectives to the plot:
- It showed Daenerys the threat of the White Walkers, setting her up to fight them next season.
- It gave Jon Snow a reason, albeit a flimsy one, to fall in love with Daenerys.
- Most importantly, it gave the White Walkers a dragon which could destroy the wall.
It accomplished all these things, but at the same time it also highlighted how much the show has changed. Everyone important survives, a bunch of faceless red shirts meet grisly ends, and our heroes literally fly off into the sunset. Well, aside from Jon Snow, who despite being doused in ice water manages to ride back to the wall.
Then the White Walkers produce a bunch of chains to drag up a dead dragon, and this is one scene I did have a problem with because it simply raised questions it didn’t need to. We’ve already seen that the Night King doesn’t have to make physical contact to raise the dead.
I think it would have been a far more effective scene if the Night King had simply walked onto the lake, kneeled down and placed his hand on the ice. Followed by a few moments of silence, followed by a low rumble. Then an explosion as the newly raised Viserion (I looked up the name) charges out of the lake and stares at its new master with its frozen blue eyes. Instead, the director decided to use a bunch of chains which just raised a lot of uncomfortable questions that no one had a an answer for.
Regardless of the dragon however, this is the episode that woke everyone up to the fact that…
The Consequences Have been Blunted
Our heroes now have plot armor as impenetrable as Frodo’s mythril chain. Beloved characters are saved at the last moment by heroic deeds worthy of Luke Skywalker. And dragons swoop to the rescue in the nick of time like Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon. It was fun to watch, and I even got chills watching those dragons burning their way through the undead horde.
Yet that’s not why Game of Thrones became a cultural phenomenon. George RR Martin broke the mold by shattering the tropes we’d taken for granted. We assumed Ned Stark was going to be the hero for the entire series, then we were shocked when he was beheaded in the first book/season. Yet Ned’s death also made complete, if tragic, sense to the audience because it was the inevitable result of the character’s actions. Ned was honorable and good, everything you expect from a hero, and yet he also made mistakes: his rigid code of honor is what lead to his death. Had he agreed to install Renly on the Iron Throne, it’s likely Little Finger would have backed him, as would High Garden.
Yet Ned was unwavering in his belief in the rule of law and his own personal honor, and instead chose to back Stannis, a man hated by everyone in King’s Landing. It was a mistake and he paid for it with his life. That was what distinguished A Song of Ice and Fire, the heroes didn’t get a pass on their mistakes. They were forced to live, or not live as the case may be, with the consequences of their actions.
Three years ago Jaime Lannister would never have been allowed to survive charging a dragon because three years ago the story respected the consequences of the character’s actions. Three years ago the Night King would have targeted the giant stationary Drogon and not the in-flight dragon whose name we didn’t know. However, since Drogon is the only dragon we know the name of, and the one Daenerys rides, his plot armor protected him.
The same holds true for Jon Snow’s mission to capture a walker, you wouldn’t get to just walk away from a horde of undead in the early seasons of Game of Thrones.
Except no, Jon Snow has always been the exception to the rule, which brings me to why all of this has changed…
Jon Snow is the Hero
He always has been and it was almost inevitable that the more the story began to focus on Jon Snow and the White Walkers, the more it would begin to transform into a more standard fantasy epic. While other storylines were character driven, Jon Snow’s has always been plot driven. He’s one of the most passive characters in both the books and the show. For most of the series he’s been trapped at the Wall, forced into one situation to the next by the plot’s White Walkers. Very little of what has happened to him was borne of his actions or choices, Jon simply reacts to the plot.
He’s made a steward instead of ranger by High Commander Mormont. Jon Snow doesn’t willingly surrender to the Wildlings, but is forced into it by his companion. Even his eventual flight from the Wildlings and rejoining the Night’s Watch is forced on him, and it’s not he who ends up having to kill the woman he loves, but a stray arrow that kills her. Jon Snow has been following a very stereotypical hero’s journey, and where other characters found death, Jon Snow always manages to heroically survive.
Three arrows in the chest? He’s sore for a few episodes after. Knife in the heart? Nothing a resurrection can’t cure. Surrounded by White Walkers? Three dragons soar to the rescue. Dying of hypothermia alone and stranded in the arctic? Uncle Benjen to the rescue.
The reason we haven’t noticed this before is because Jon Snow’s role has been so minor up until the last two seasons. The show is called Game of Thrones after all, and the most interesting part of it has been that struggle for the Iron Throne. As far as the audience was concerned, Jon Snow and the White Walkers were just a subplot going on. Yet in reality it’s actually been the reverse: Jon Snow and the White Walkers have been the main plot all along, and the titular Game of Thrones has been nothing but a highly entertaining sideshow. Obviously the monsters who bring death and eternal winter were always going to end up being the ultimate threat that had to be put down. And by that token, it was inevitable that eventually it would morph into a high fantasy adventure as that plot took center stage.
Like most stereotypical heroes, Jon Snow is defined only by his good heart and his fighting abilities. He succeeds not because of his actions or skills, but because the plot demands he succeed. He loses the Battle of the Bastards after falling for one of the most fundamental psychological warfare tactics and he fails his mission north of the Wall. Each time he’s saved by a last minute rescue by someone else. If you look back on the story, you’ll see that Jon Snow has done very little to distinguish himself.
Just like Luke Skywalker, Frodo, Captain America (Pre-super serum of course), and countless others. He’s the hero, the one we’re supposed to relate with, whom goes on to succeed despite impossible odds. He’s a prince, a warrior, and a good man. Stick a princess in a tower and you’d have the trifecta of a boilerplate fantasy story.
All that said, I still enjoyed watching this latest season, this isn’t bad storytelling by any means. That’s not to say there aren’t several bad scenes, Arya and Sansa’s plot against Littlefinger coming to mind, but I got the same enjoyment out of watching this season as I do watching Lord of the Rings. I like to see the heroes win, I like seeing dragons burning their way across the land, and I like seeing the prince get his princess. This isn’t a bad story.
It’s just a different story than the one I signed up for seven years ago. And whether that ultimately turns out to be a good or bad thing will depend entirely on if HBO sticks the landing and gives the audience a good ending to A Game of Thrones.