‘Game of Thrones’ Remains Visually Impressive While Sacrificing Its Defining Aspect: Convoluted Storytelling

At the suggestion of my friend Brett Bergstrom, I started to read Bryce Rudow’s Game of Thrones column on randomnerds.com. His column for episode three of this season sports the tagline “Never believe a thing simply because you want to believe it.” Although the article’s main point only focuses on one episode, I believe it is the essence of what HBO’s Game of Thrones has become over the past few seasons.

George R.R. Martin’s (GRRM) A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the best fantasy epics of our time. There is such incredible depth, layers, character development, and world building that I can barely fathom one person created a world so extensive. What makes this series different and intriguing is that it takes a unique approach to traditional fantasy tropes and storytelling. Classic ideas are presented, then not followed in the way you would expect.

The protagonist of the first book is killed before the book is over. The character on the hero’s path is brutally murdered at a wedding just when things seem to be turning around for him. The main hero is betrayed by his own men after doing what he believes is right. The boy who wanted to be a knight loses his ability to walk. The young girl who dreams of being a princess is raped and tortured by her Prince Charming, in addition to being used as a pawn in the political schemes of her elders. The knight who defines himself by his fighting skills gets his sword hand cut off. The series always treats the consequence of choice with the utmost respect. Anything can happen to anyone, at any time.

However, the past few seasons of the show have disregarded this most realistic theme of the fantasy series. Characters who would’ve normally been killed in dire situations miraculously survive due to the greatest protection of them all: plot armor. Astonishingly, only one of the “magnificent seven” who travels north beyond the wall this season dies- and he is the character we least care about. Killing someone important, like Tormund, would’ve hurt, but would also keep viewers engaged by reminding us of the high stakes of the northern expedition. If none of the main characters die, what do we have to fear as a viewer? Is there really any tension at all if character action lacks consequence?

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This failure to adhere to the consequential promise of the first four seasons has marked the fifth, sixth, and seventh seasons. It’s no coincidence these are also the seasons where showrunners Benioff and Weiss were left to figure out how to forge in without source material. Let’s break down some glaring plot holes from seasons six and seven that are uncharacteristic to the Game of Thrones narrative:

  • The first scene of the series shows the punishment for deserting the Night’s Watch. How has nobody other than Ramsay Bolton brought this up to Jon? Wouldn’t the northern lords especially be wearisome of this before naming him King?
  • Along those same lines, Jon’s resurrection is brushed off as if it never happened. He is Game of Thrones Jesus, yet no one seems to care. The wildlings say he’s “some sort of god”, but no one else is in awe of Jon, a man who was literally raised from the dead. Dany inquires about it, but is never given a full explanation of what happened to him even after she sees his wounds.
  • Is Hodor a wight? It would be heartbreaking and terrifying to see wight Hodor. Showing him marching among the army of the dead would give us a familiar face to show no one is safe from the inevitable threat.
  • Did Randyll Tarly just forget about his family’s Valyrian steel sword, Heartsbane? He states over and over about the importance of the family name and symbolism of the sword. After Sam steals it, he never mentions it again. Sam told him exactly where he was going. If he cared so much about the sword why didn’t he send anyone after Sam to retrieve it?
  • How the hell does Arya survive that attack from the waif in Braavos? She jumps into a canal that’s most likely filled with sewage and trash, but doesn’t suffer from an infection nor bleed out. She then partakes in a Jason Bourne style chase with life-threatening wounds and beats a healthy assassin. She for some reason is allowed to leave scotch free from a death cult to pursue her own personal vengeance, something they preach heavily against in favor of being “no one” and serving the Many-Faced God. An instance where a character should’ve paid for her choices.
  • Does Cersei face any repercussions for blowing up the sept? Apparently not. The only person who mentions it is Hot Pie nonchalantly. This would be a perfect time for the common folk to rebel, as this action left collateral damage in addition to ending a major noble House that controls most of the food supply.
  • Was really no one left by Stannis to guard Dragonstone? If unoccupied, why hasn’t anyone tried to claim it? Wouldn’t Cersei try to put some sort of defense there as it is the most logical place for Dany to set up camp? Jaime even directly tells her Dany will land there in episode one of this season.
  • What was the point of Jorah having grayscale? Sam easily cures him by following instructions from an old book that no one else has bothered to try. He doesn’t receive credit at all for curing one of the most contagious diseases in the world. Jorah came away with no scars or anything to show for the disease. The only explanation I can think of is introducing a bond between the right hand men of Jon and Dany when they all inevitably end up in the same place.
  • How is Yara’s fleet taken so off guard by Euron? If she is one of the most seasoned naval commanders in the world, shouldn’t she have at least been a little prepared?
  • There is no way Jaime should’ve come out of Field of Fire 2.0 unscathed. He makes an irrational decision to attack Dany before Bronn saves him. They end up downriver without drowning or being captured despite thousands of Dothraki in the vicinity. Dany’s just going to let the commander of Cersei’s army walk away? And how does he survive when wearing heavy plate armor? 
    • Jaime and Bronn should’ve been captured at this point. In a hypothetical situation, Dany uses Jaime as a bargaining chip, but burns Bronn along with the Tarlys to showcase her power. In poetic fashion, Tyrion frees Jaime as Jaime once did for him. This is a classic Game of Thrones conflict. Choosing between family and duty. Tyrion would’ve suffered the consequences of his actions, being relieved of his duties as Hand, and maybe even death.
  • Was the plan to capture a wight to convince Cersei of the looming threat the stupidest plan ever or was it the stupidest plan ever? You send seven of the best warriors in Westeros on a suicide mission to persuade a leader who Tyrion– and anyone who has interacted with her– knows only cares about holding on to her power?
    • Gendry turns out to be an Olympic runner, and time irrelevant, as he somehow reaches the Wall, sends a raven to Dragonstone just in time for Dany to fly north and save the group without any of them dying from the battle. Jon’s plot armor thickens more as he is tackled into freezing cold water by wights, but is deus ex machinaed AGAIN by zombie Benjen (who for some reason cannot get back on his horse).
    • How awesome would it have been if Rhaegal was the one to come back and save Jon? There were countless hints of Jon’s Targaryen heritage throughout the season. Rhaegal saving Jon would’ve been pinnacle symbolism of the dragon’s blood flowing through his veins. This could’ve been established with Jon having a touching moment with Rhaegal on Dragonstone instead of Drogon.
  • Winterfell was such a drag. Littlefinger’s death scene could’ve happened as soon as the Starks reunited if Bran would’ve told his sisters what he knew right away. Did we really have to wait three whole episodes building fake tension between Arya and Sansa? No, but we needed a plot line to keep these characters relevant. Did the showrunners think it believable Arya would really kill her sister when she reclaimed her identity as Arya Stark of Winterfell? Even if her and Sansa are vastly different, they are still sisters and two of only three Starks left.
    • Seeing more of Bran’s visions would show us the extent of his knowledge. He says he “knows everything”, yet has to be informed by Sam about the most important marriage in Westerosi history. Wut. We could’ve seen visions of the first Long Night, the prophecy of The Last Hero/Azor Ahai, more of Rhaegar and Lyanna, etc. Visions showing us past events relating to what is happening now.
  • I believe this season could’ve easily been 10 episodes. Game of Thrones is a rollercoaster of a story. The plot slowly builds up before huge payoffs. Making them worth the wait. This season was go, go, go without new or exciting subplots developing.
    • Satisfying as it was, what if Arya hadn’t killed Walder Frey at the end of last season? She could’ve roamed around the Riverlands killing Freys and Lannisters, taking on a light Lady Stoneheart role. We see Lord Walder become increasingly paranoid before Arya puts the plan she actually did into action mid season. She goes back to Winterfell around episode six or seven to reunite with her family. Small, but important payoffs.
    • The schemers (Varys, Littlefinger, Tyrion) are caught in a place where there isn’t much to do with them in the new forming world. Cersei never mentions how Littlefinger betrayed her for the Starks. She could’ve made a plan to send someone North, a la the Boltons and Locke, to kill Littlefinger, Sansa, and Jon. It would’ve been a hard task to accomplish, but it would show human politics still have a role, and the “game of thrones” is ongoing. Varys is more mysterious. He probably still has some loyal informers in King’s Landing. They could’ve told him about The Scorpion, and Cersei’s “pregnancy”. Perhaps making Tyrion question his loyalties and strategies before his secret meeting with Jaime. Tyrion repeatedly thought of stupid plans when this is where he should’ve thrived. In Mereen he was out of his element, but this is Westeros, where he is supposed to be a political expert. He seems as if he’s lost his step. First losing Dany’s navy, then being tricked with Casterly Rock, finally concepting a horrifically stupid plan to present a wight to Cersei. Tyrion makes hints about Dany’s budding romance with Jon, but doesn’t mention the idea of marriage. A simple solution that would’ve quickly united two powerful houses against Cersei, similar to how the Riverlands and North united against the Mad King when Ned Stark married Catelyn Tully. The idea wouldn’t have necessarily worked, but it’s been shown how marriage can be a cornerstone for alliances.

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The above plot holes and suggestions may seem nitpicky, but the reason I and many other fans are so critical of the show is because of how intricately plotted, tense and consequential it once was. We can empathize with characters regardless of them being “good” or “bad”. Cersei commits horrible atrocities, but has fierce love for her children. Arya is an innocent little girl, but a vengeful killer. Robert Baratheon is a great war hero who ended the reign of a psychotic king, and a drunk who frequents with whores and is incapable of ruling. Naturally there are characters who lean more towards one end of the spectrum. However, a majority of the characters fall in between. The hero or villain isn’t purely good or evil. It depends from what perspective you’re looking at it. This story is a representation of the gray shades that color the human values, flaws, and motives in real life.

These plot holes and missteps are evidence the last few seasons were written for TV, not for a complex anecdote. This is completely understandable as the show has now surpassed its source material. Nonetheless, events that have happened in the show that have yet to take place in the books–such as Hodor’s origin–were original ideas from GRRM. He NEEDS to be involved in the writing of the show. The last episode he wrote was the famous “The Lion and The Rose” (Season 4 Episode 2). Since then he has had little to no involvement in the show’s writing. He’s stated he has been focusing on finishing the next book of the series, The Winds of Winter, but it’s been a full six years now since his last book release. Only GRRM can handle his story in a way that’s intriguing and true to its form. I hope he is involved in the writing of the final season.

That being said David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have accomplished a remarkable feat by turning A Song of Ice and Fire into one of the most recognized brands and TV shows in the world. They took a universe and story GRRM himself said was unadaptable, and made it a global phenomenon. Millions of people watch Thrones for different reasons. The dragons, the battles, the sex, the elaborate world, whatever the reason there is something for most everyone. It is visually exceptional and acted with real investment and panache. But this is Game of Thrones. This is a story where intricate components of storytelling and human strife are the driving force.

I have learned to take every little detail of this story literally, so the lack of intelligent writing this season was hard to ignore. Each episode ended with me pumped about what I just saw, but then as I reflect I realize the episode didn’t feel like Game of Thrones of old. Each feels like a cinematic blockbuster following predictable plot beats, bumbling around while fitting in fan service and blundering past storylines. A distinct line of good vs. evil with no gray area is not what Thrones is known for. Even with the season finale tying up loose ends for the most part, this season wasn’t as compelling or satisfying as previous installments. It was a spectacle with little homage to the roots of the core narrative.

I will be watching and anticipating season eight. But that anticipation is certainly tempered by the sloppiness that defined season seven.

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