by William Moon
Spoilers for several seasons of Game of Thrones are present in this article, up to and including the sixth episode of season seven, “Beyond the Wall”.
No show spills as much blood as Game of Thrones, and no show causes as much digital ink to be spilled as Game of Thrones either. From now until the coming season six finale on Sunday, a glut of articles recapping this past episode “Beyond the Wall”, previewing the finale, spinning out new fan theories of varying lucidity, and/or grumbling about the loosening of the show’s narrative guidelines will be loosed upon the internet world, each one hoping to catch a viral wave and spend 15 minutes in the mainstream before being buried underneath next week’s glut of similar articles. (Note: This article hopes to catch that same viral wave, no two ways about it.)
As I’ve watched the last couple of seasons unfold, basically from season five on, I’ve felt a slight but noticeable change in the tone of many of those articles, which follows along with a somewhat noticeable change in the show itself. While the series still commands much of the world’s attention during each season (and to some degree during its offseason), an undercurrent of frustration has settled into much of the discourse surrounding it. Now to be clear, this is separate from the overt outrage the show sometimes fosters, what with its history of brutal, sometimes across-the-line violence and degradation. No, this is increasingly more of an ever-present gripe surrounding each new episode. While the series still holds many of us in the palm of its hand, it’s hard not to notice the way the show has increasingly cut narrative corners in its past couple of seasons. While these conveniences of narrative have often allowed for the show’s signature huge set pieces to occur, they aren’t going unnoticed by the its fanbase.
But while I may not necessarily come here to praise Game of Thrones, I don’t come to here bury it either. It’s obviously still a great series, one that occupies an absurdly large amount of space in pop culture. A TV series with this kind of wide appeal isn’t supposed to happen in the increasingly fractured mass media landscape. And while HBO and the show’s cast and crew pour an ungodly amount of time, money, and effort into the series’ production, it’s still almost unbelievable that this show exists. I think any complaints about the shifting nature of the series are valid, certainly, but need to be placed in the proper context.
What I essentially see is a show split up into two eras. To borrow from comic book history (a popular subject around these parts), let’s call seasons one through four the show’s ‘golden age’, with season five on being its ‘silver age’. Some of the key points that separate these two eras in my mind are that the first four seasons more or less directly adapted what A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin had on the page in his first three books, A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords. Season five onward has dealt with the split and increasingly disparate narrative of the last two published books in the series, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, and very famously the parts of the story that Martin hasn’t gotten around to writing yet. Some new material (and some material that was adapted but changed so much from the books that it’s almost new) began appearing in season five, with the series now pretty much entirely beyond where Martin left his readers at the end of Dragons back in 2011.
The TL;DR version of all this is to say that the first four seasons of the series were about the journeys the various characters were on, while the (what will end up being) final four seasons seem to be much more about the destination the story will ultimately reach. For this current season, in particular, one of the chief complaints has been the near breakneck pace of the storytelling, with characters seemingly able to appear whenever and wherever they need to for the sake of the story. Honestly, this has been going on since season five, but has become increasingly noticeable this year. Thinking back to the show’s first episode, “Winter Is Coming”, recall the bit of dialogue that established that it took a full month for King Robert Baratheon’s traveling party to reach Winterfell from King’s Landing, with the characters spending the entirety of the next episode making the return journey along The Kingsroad. Hell, Arya Stark spent about 57 years trying to get back to Winterfell, but Littlefinger and Sansa get there from The Vale in about three minutes in season five. For most shows (or movies or books, for that matter), it could be easy to dismiss this as nitpicking, but the narrative rooted itself in the idea that it took people a hell of a long time to get from one place to another back before mechanized transport existed. Horses, carriages, and sailboats move slowly, and armies on the march move slower still. This was baked into the storytelling in the old days, defining the character arcs of major players like Arya and Daenerys from the nearly the very beginning.
This also played very heavily into the show’s trademark twists. No, no one was going to ride up to save Ned Stark from the executioner at the last minute. Anyone who could was hundreds of miles away, and there were Lannister guards all around Ned anyway. (This sad reality played fairly heavily in Arya and Sansa’s confrontational storyline from this past week.) The difficulties and practical realities involved in these lengthy journeys also figured heavily into the Red Wedding. (The Freys built up their power and wealth by charging a toll on anyone who passed over their bridge, which most people traveling through the Riverlands would have to do at some point.) Again, I say all this not to bury the show, but to underscore its evolving nature. How did Daenerys and the Dothraki know exactly where to ambush the Lannister and Tarly troops earlier this season? How can they travel back and forth from Dragonstone so easily, when it took Stannis almost a whole season to sail to King’s Landing from there back in season two? These are all valid questions, and people spend a lot of mental effort trying to come up with answers for them, even if the showrunners themselves do not. (Note: The first four seasons weren’t perfect, with a couple of storylines – the Night’s Watchmen north of the Wall and post-Blackwater Stannis – being almost hilariously drawn out in order for the show to adapt everything it needed to from the first three books.)
That mental effort is also often spent whenever a character makes the kind of odd, nonsensical decision that happens every so often now. Why did Sansa do…pretty much anything she did in season six? Copious theories were tossed out to explain her decision-making, but none really could, and the season ended with us just having to accept that she did what she did so The Battle of the Bastards could play out the way it did, for maximum dramatic effect. Once resistant to such temptations (again, no one was going to ride up and save Ned Stark at the last minute back in season one), the show is falling more and more into the classic John Ford school of thought with some of their story choices – “If we didn’t do it this way, the show would end”. (This refers to the classic western Stagecoach, in which the evil Injuns could’ve easily shot the horses pulling the coach during the final action sequence, but didn’t, with the legendary filmmaker admitting that they only didn’t because the movie would’ve ended if they had.)
While it’s very easy to hold the showrunners accountable for all of these narrative inconsistencies, that isn’t entirely fair. Martin’s determined commitment to not cheating for purposes of convenience, to not having the obvious thing happen all the time, to continuously increasing his narrative instead of condensing it has likely lead to him writing himself into a corner. I admire the narrative fidelity, but even he has admitted to the “Meereenese knot”, i.e. how to figure out how to convincingly restart the plots of everyone caught in the epic time suck that is Meereen. The show ran into this same problem at the beginning of season four, and had Daenerys, a character with a tremendous amount of momentum built up behind her by the end of season three, essentially try and fail to rule the city for two years before punting that storyline without really resolving it at the end of the season six. Other storylines have been punted, too (the disastrous Dorne subplot is a notable one), and the show began to clearly focus on condensing its story down to the more essential elements. This hasn’t always been handled well (the horribly contrived downfall of Stannis Baratheon in season five, the show’s greatest narrative sin), but it’s definitely been necessary. I could see Martin being happy with a kind of non-ending to his book story (something he’s joked about in interviews, and which would definitely fit into the larger history of Westeros as presented in his various works), but the TV viewing audience will demand a true, satisfying resolution to this story. The showrunners are bending the narrative over backwards at times to provide that, but of course we still watch. We’re too invested in the show to stop now, and while it can be somewhat baffling at times, the show provides us with satisfying spectacle after satisfying spectacle. If character and plot were telling the story in the early years, the often unbelievable visuals are telling the story now, and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that.
At the beginning of this season, I felt like the show was beginning to pull us towards an inevitable conclusion, with that element of surprise that was so important to the show’s early years being gone. And while no major characters have yet perished, with the show jumping through some big hoops thus far to keep it that way, I do feel that they’ve reintroduced some sense of uncertainty about the future in the past few episodes. We know that Jon Snow is a legitimate Targaryen, and therefore the true heir to the Iron Throne. We’ve seen friction between Tyrion and Daenerys, and a very spooky prophecy from Melisandre that could mean Varys turns his back on the Dragon Queen at some point, plus the tension between the surviving Starks at Winterfell. All of this may come to nothing, and the show may end in the most predictable way possible, but the series needs the narrative tension that comes with an unpredictable future. It’s what Game of Thrones is built on. Maybe Jaime Lannister is Azor Ahai, not Jon or Daenerys. Maybe Daenerys isn’t actually one of the good guys in this story, or maybe Tyrion, for so long this show’s most important character, is wrong to doubt her, wrong enough that it costs him his life. It’s the endless balancing act. We want the show to be what we want it to be, but yet we want it to be able to surprise us, too. It’s maintaining that balance that’s most crucial to the series at this late stage in the game. The narrative inconsistencies have piled up, and they may pile up more still, but if it finds a way to both surprise us and satisfy us at the same time over the next seven episodes, Game of Thrones can still stick the landing, even if it’s used a few cheat codes to get there. Journeys are easier, and often more compelling, but for most of the TV audience, the destination is what will be remembered.
The desultory end of Stannis’ storyline (and with it, one of the last few characters on the show who couldn’t be easily placed into the increasingly good vs. evil story structure of the later seasons), the wtf nature of season six Sansa, the half-baked ‘capture a wight’ plan from the past two episodes, the frustrating opaqueness of latter day Bran and Arya, the idea that Stannis (and everyone else) just simply let Dragonstone sit empty for a couple of years before Daenerys showed up, and Bronn and Jaime’s escape from the pond under Daenerys, Drogon, and the Dothraki’s noses all beggar belief to some degree. And there are certainly more. On the one hand, this reliance on narrative convenience and sometimes outright lazy storytelling gives the viewer the feeling that the show is just becoming any other show, where the good guys win because they’re supposed to and whatever needs to happen to create that eventuality will happen. But then the show still has the ability to drown out any criticism by doing something that only it can do (usually by burning it with dragon fire). Frustrating though it can be, it’s what the show is now, and something viewers should accept as we go further. The details may bedevil us, but there’s still so much left here to see.