By Karthik Shankar:
Yet another year a Game Of Thrones finalé blew up the internet. With Jon Snow, everyone’s favourite blue eyed boy (not the White Walker kind) seemingly dead, people freaked out on Twitter and Facebook. Even actor Maisie Williams, who plays Arya Stark, expressed her disbelief in a Twitter Q & A.
— Maisie Williams (@Maisie_Williams) June 15, 2015
Seemingly this is what Game Of Thrones seems to be doing best lately. Like an expert troll, unexpectedly kills off a fan-favourite or employs a plot twist that upends the narrative. Most of these moments are taken verbatim from the book, so it would be unfair to blame the showrunners for these decisions.
The difference is that, in its first three seasons, the show used to be good at telegraphing the quiet before the storm. Some of the most indelible moments in the earlier seasons were dialogues between characters. The tête-à-tête between Cersei and Robert Baratheon that illuminated their loveless marriage, Brienne and Jamie’s conversation in a communal bath, or the far too cleverly veiled discussions of the empire between Varys, the scheming master of whispers and Peytr Baelish, the master of coin. The show also managed it in part this season in Cersei’s tragic storyline which ended in the distressing walk of shame.
It’s unfair to compare the show to the books since TV shows are different beasts; especially in a season which charted its own course (Stannis, Sansa and Tyrion’s plots were quite different from the books). However, the show has bested the book in the past by adding dimensions to characters who were one-note in the books, like Cersei. It’s all the more concerning then that the show seems to be simplifying its characters. Two of the show’s pivotal focal points, Jon and Danaerys, are pretty much flawless, noble, and heroic. The scene where Jon dies in the books is a culmination of many poor decisions he has made, including sending an army to fight Ramsay Bolton (thus breaking The Watch’s vow of not getting involved with the Seven Kingdoms). On the show, he comes off as the wronged hero, who just wanted to help the Wildlings. Similarly in the books, the Meereen plot exists solely for the purpose of twisting the white saviour narrative, as Daenerys realises that the system of slavery cannot be dismantled by someone who has no reading of a different culture. On the show, Daenerys is the well-intentioned queen dealing with troubled subjects.
Moreover, in the last two seasons, big moments have taken over the show. Due to Game Of Thrones’ fragmented narrative where each episode moves across several locations, each one of those have had to count and the show has followed suit by trying to make every location count. The only way to do that is to throw in a cavalcade of surprises ever so often. Unfortunately, that is a strategy that numbs viewers after a point. Not every moment has to match the Red Wedding in its boldness.
Worse is how badly the show has been paced lately. We’ve spent more time on some seemingly inconsequential plots like Arya’s training and less on more momentous ones. In just the span of an episode Stannis went from a hard-nosed military commander with a fanatical bend to someone who was willing to sacrifice the daughter he loved. The moment where Shireen was burned at the stake was powerful, but it also felt like a moment that wasn’t earned. In the next episode, Stannis’s wife kills herself and he unsuccessfully wages a battle with the Boltons. The sudden fall of Stannis is powerful in illuminating how broken Stannis is by the time Brienne gets to him. But it took some dragon-sized leaps to get to the natural culmination of his character arc.
And then there are characters like Sansa who have regressed. After displaying some steel last season at the Vale, her politically motivated marriage to the show’s inferior Joffrey, Ramsay Bolton, has seen her become a passive victim again. Her rape on their wedding night was the last straw for many viewers, considering it has repeatedly been used as a plot point on the show. The rape also represented a return to the Sansa of season 2 who was a prisoner at Kings Landing. When Theon finally escapes with her, it was hard not to stifle a yawn, considering it was a rehash of what we saw just last season when she fled Kings Landing with Littlefinger.
The biggest misfire all season has been Dorne. Despite having excellent talents like Alexander Siddig and Indira Varma on board, all the Dorne characters were poorly etched and their motivations unclear. Most of all the much touted Sand Snakes were a colossal disappointment due to a mixture of poor material and horrendous performances from the three women playing them. Keisha Castle Hughes, who plays Obara, was an Oscar nominee at the age of 14 for ‘Whale Rider’! Yet you wouldn’t know it. Even worse was Tyene, a sexual wild-child, who existed solely for the purpose of titillating Bronn and the audience. She also delivered what a line that belongs on a Game of Thrones porn parody, not the actual show itself, “You need the good girl but you want the bad pussy.” The Dorne black hole also sucked in Jamie and Bronn, two of the show’s most entertaining characters.
It might seem unfair to heap all the criticism on a show that still manages to be unlike any other on television in terms of its scale and its magnificent visuals. The Battle at Hardhome and the attack of the Harpys proved that the show can outdo the book when it comes to visual poetry, but Game Of Thrones has shown us it’s capable of more. In its first three seasons, it felt like a cohesive whole. Now it feels like an endless collection of climaxes. It’s also further exacerbated by the fact that the show seems to revel in its misanthropy. ‘A Song Of Ice And Fire’ has more than its fair share of distressing events, but there’s also a strong strand of optimism that the series no longer possesses. That will hopefully change soon. Fantasy novels can be dark, but ultimately they are also about hope. Maybe that will change when one character is reborn in fire (Deus ex Melisandre anyone?). Hopefully winter has come and gone for Game Of Thrones. Can we get to spring next?