The Failures of Game of Thrones

For those of you that don’t watch the show, I hate to fill up your news feed with more crap you don’t care about, but here goes nuthin.

Unless you live under a rock, you are probably aware that the HBO original series Game of Thrones (based on the novels by George R.R. Martin) aired its final episodes this month, and you are probably also aware of the controversies surrounding the show’s final season. As is true for nearly all of the giant pop-culture franchises in today’s media, it is nearly impossible to please everyone. Star Wars will probably never again be able to put out another universally acclaimed film, Avengers: Endgame was disappointing to a large group and the series as a whole definitely had a handful of blights, and even Game of Thrones had a recognizable rough spot in the form of Season 5 after the series left its source material behind to forge ahead on its own. Season 5, however, was nothing compared to the backlash the show runners and head writers, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, currently face as a result of the series’ final season.

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Bystanders stare in awe at the devastation done to the story by the show’s final season.

Before we continue though, I want to clarify what this post is going to be about. It is not going to be a D&D [the writers] bashing session, nor is it going to be a wall of complaints that echo things you’ve probably already seen on social media.

In fact, let’s just get this out of the way. The only thing I have to say about D&D specifically is that, while there has been a severe drop-off in writing quality since season 5, their biggest mistake was opting out of the 10-episode format in favor of the 6-episode one. This meant less time for character development and small details that would have helped the audience along with the seemingly sudden character shifts and what some have come to call “character assassinations” (we’ll come back to that in a minute). Martin himself defended D&D to much the same tune by saying “they had six hours for this final season. I expect these last two books of mine will fill 3,000 manuscript pages between them before I’m done … and if more pages and chapters and scenes are needed, I’ll add them.” Novels are much easier to flesh out than TV scripts which have a set time limit and deadline.

So, this post is not going to be about how D&D are responsible for what I perceive as the failure of Game of Thrones. Instead, I think both Martin and D&D are equally responsible, because I think the story itself is the failure. Still, it should be noted that I have not read the books, so I’m going to be running under the assumption that the books (past and future) are going to share the same major plot points as the show. As far as I know, Martin has basically confirmed that this is the case, so my assumption shouldn’t be too far off base.

 

Okay… here we go. There are going to be major spoilers for both the show, and I assume, the books from here until the end of the post. You’ve been warned.

plot
This is the “plot” of a story. You will inevitably see this on your first day in any creative writing class.

One of the first things you will learn in any story or script writing class is that, in the first act of your story, you should allude to or introduce what the primary conflict of the story is going to be. Of course, this is not a rule, there are plenty of examples of stories where the primary conflict is not introduced until later, or stories where there are multiple major conflicts. However, in the latter example, these conflicts are usually tied together by overarching themes (Cloud Atlas and Breaking Bad), and these themes are usually introduced in the first act, so they’re actually still following the rule. You will also learn that the resolution to your primary conflict should come during the climax of your story (which should be common sense).

 

Game of Thrones is called Game of Thrones for a reason. In the final episode we see Drogon (Daenerys Targaryen’s, played by Emilia Clark, favorite dragon) literally melt the great Iron Throne, in response to Daenerys’ death, indicating that he believed that it was her desire for power and glory that ultimately killed her. This display of sentience and intelligence ultimately opens up a few questions about the role he played in the last few episodes, but we’re not here to talk about that. This scene is the conclusion to what I would describe as the story’s major theme: that the games and schemes of politics and power are ultimately meaningless in comparison to the struggle for life and love.

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Drogon melts the Iron Throne

This brings me to my first failure, which is the failure of the story to capitalize on its primary conflict: the struggle for life and love. The first scene of the entire show is dedicated to introducing us to the horror of the White Walkers, which are inhuman gods of death that command an army of zombies. I can’t think of a better antagonist for a story who’s major conflict is about the struggle for life than a seemingly unstoppable army of the dead…

In fact, it’s a pretty well-known theory that the Walkers are an allegorical stand-in for climate change; an ever encroaching entity that threatens life as we know it.

Except… apparently the White Walkers were never the antagonist of the story, or, at least, their defeat does not come at the climax (where it should have). The Walkers are somewhat easily and unsatisfyingly defeated at the Battle of Winterfell and promptly forgotten about in preparation for the war against Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Heady). Cersei is… an inadequate antagonist in comparison. She is a great primary character for sowing discord and chaos, but she does not represent the same existential threat to Westeros that the Walkers do. Under Cersei’s rule, Westeros is a very shitty place to live, but it already was. Under the rule of the Walkers, there would have been no Westeros, only death. Still, to her credit, she does represent a decent ideological counter to her opponent, Queen Daenerys Targaryen [insert other numerous titles here]. Cersei only has real love for her children and for her twin brother, Jaime Lannister. She holds only contempt for anyone else, and a vile hatred for those that dare threaten to take away anything from her loved ones. In comparison, Daenerys has no children of her own, though she refers to her dragons as her children multiple times. She is extremely compassionate and has a heart for the suffering of others and a healthy amount of righteous anger for those who would willingly cause others to suffer……………………………………………………………………………………

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Remember when I talked about “characters assassinations?” The only real character assassination to occur is the one that happens to Daenerys. No amount of detail or realistic character development is going to change my mind about this. It is, in my opinion, the second and most unforgivable failure of the story; the revelation that Daenerys was the antagonist the whole time.

 

The woman who was sold off to a warlord rapist by her own brother, wherein she experienced slavery first-hand. The woman who, by virtue of herself, made her captor fall in love with her and challenged the savage traditions of his culture. The woman who brought in a multitude of women under her wings (pun intended) to save them from the horrors of military conquest. The woman who miraculously gave life to three dragons. The woman who defeated the greedy and selfish masters of Quarth. The woman who stopped to give water to a slave being crucified for a petty crime on the docks of Slaver’s Bay. The woman who outsmarted the slavers of Astapor and liberated the whole of the Unsullied, the greatest army of slaves in the world. The woman who liberated all of the slaves in the great cities of Yunkai and Mereen and defeated their masters a second time when they returned to reclaim their “property.” The woman who locked up two of her dragons for years because the third one burnt one innocent child. She stayed true to herself until… she was suspicious that her lover’s sister didn’t trust her?

“You know what would be a good prank? Let’s get the audience to fall in love with this particular character but then literally turn her into Hitler-Satan at the end of the series. They won’t see that coming. We’ll subvert those expectations so hard, bro.”

Here’s those egregious shots of the Nazi and Satanic imagery in case you think I’m exaggerating, the latter of which is being hailed as one of the greatest shots in TV history by weird nerds that have never watched quality television before this weekend apparently:

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Jon walks up the steps of the Reichstag.
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Dany spreads her wings.

 

 

 

 

 

My biggest gripe with Daenery’s story arc is how problematic it is. In the past, I brushed off the show’s treatment of women as “that’s how things were back then.” Only now do I realize how utterly stupid that sounds. THERE WAS NO BACK THEN. IT’S A FICTIONAL UNIVERSE. Yes yes yes, I know its supposed to be representative of medieval times, but that’s not the point. There’s a difference between presenting violence against women and narratively turning a blind eye to it. One part that always bothered me in the show was how Lord Commander Mormount defended Crastor’s raping of his daughters because “it’s how things had to be.” Mormount is framed as an honorable man and one Jon takes inspiration from.

If a woman character in this series isn’t a major named character, then she’s probably a prostitute. They are constantly presented as eye-candy for the viewer, nothing more and nothing less. There are constant instances of “locker-room talk” between male characters, and rarely are healthy sexual relationships shown on screen. I think the Stark men are the only male proprietors of healthy sexual relations in the entire series… at least until Season 8 comes around.

And then there’s Cersei and Dany, the only two competent dictators in the story, and they just so happen to be the only two female leaders. Yes, some other women are shown to have leadership abilities, but none of them hold positions of power until the last episode when Sansa becomes Queen In Da Norf. I remember sarcastically saying “I can’t wait for all the bad ‘this is why women can’t be president’ takes” as Dany was burning the city to the ground. They came, and they were much worse than I was anticipating.

Then there’s the problematic trope of the male hero being “forced” to kill his female lover. “She made him do it.” It’s just a snowball effect from here before you start making excuses for domestic violence. “He had no choice.” Again, this is a work of fiction. The writers deliberately made decisions beforehand that led to that final decision, not the characters. They are the ones that decided “we need to end on this trope, it’s definitely never been done before.”

logan jean
For the greater good.
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Jon should have been shirtless, change my mind.
vanhelping
Here’s another one from a different Hugh Jackman movie for funsies… although this one is decidedly less problematic

 

Ultimately, Dany’s story is an anti-revolutionary one, one that equates liberation and radical progressivism with insanity and bloodshed, one that takes a look at Cersei and Dany and says “yep, these both look the same to me, one is more attractive than the other but in the end they mean the same thing.” Except, the story and its creators KNOW they are not the same thing. They had to force Dany to do something out of character to make their point. They had to literally assassinate her and her character because of what she represented, and I cannot forgive them for it.

 

I will remember Game of Thrones fondly for getting the fantasy genre some much deserved screen time in the world of television. Nothing like it has been done before and it undoubtedly has revolutionized the television industry. I will also remember it fondly for the amount of work and care was put in until the very end, especially by the cast members. I don’t pretend to know Emilia Clark’s thoughts, but even if she disagreed with her character’s story-arc, she gave it her all. Everyone did. Hopefully this doesn’t have the big franchise curse of ruining peoples’ careers because a lot of them are arguably some of the most talented people in the business right now. In this way, Game of Thrones was very far from being a complete artistic failure. There are plenty of good things about it, but I unfortunately can’t help but wallow in how unsatisfied and disappointed I am in the conclusion its story.

 

If this post wasn’t satisfactory, then I’d be willing to bet that Lindsey Ellis is going to be uploading a video in the next few weeks that will be exponentially more in depth and discernible than this quick write-up I just did. She’s like the queen of YouTube feminist theory so you should check out her channel.

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