I’m often asked for my opinion on HBO’s Game of Thrones. So I might as well get this out of the way now that Season 5 has just ended. I like Game of Thrones. I watch the show regularly and have read several of George R.R. Martin’s books. I respect the show’s production values and willingness to depart from conventional storytelling methods.
But I don’t love it. Too often, it relies on shocking viewers rather than telling a compelling story. It’s still entertaining, but not meaningful.
WARNING: Spoilers for Game of Thrones Seasons 1-5 below!
Like everybody – except for HBO showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and George R.R. Martin himself – I don’t know how Game of Thrones will end. That’s actually quite rare for a story. Generally, stories identify a protagonist or hero early on. In the first few chapters (frequently Chapter 2 of a novel), that hero is then sent on a quest – destroy the Ring, solve the murder mystery, avenge the death of a loved one, etc. The hero encounters some challenges but ultimately prevails. The story might have surprising twists and turns, but readers have some idea of where it’s going and why.
A “Chapter 2” setup tells the reader about the stakes and how everything in the story ties together. Seemingly disconnected events have a greater meaning within a framework. For example, in Chapter 2 of Lord of the Rings, Gandalf warns Frodo about the Ring, telling readers that temptation would be a key issue in the story. Boromir’s fate underscores this theme, but also shows the power of redemption and that it is possible to resist. We can then contrast Boromir with his brother Faramir, who rejects the Ring. Chapter 2 primes readers for the rest of the story, giving us a reason to care about secondary characters like Boromir or Faramir.
For the most part, Martin deliberately eschewes the “hero’s quest” archetype for Game of Thrones (although Arya and Bran Stark could arguably follow this path). Game of Thrones has no Chapter 2; there’s no primary hero or quest. Rather, Game of Thrones contains dozens of characters, each with their own goals and desires. This works brilliantly in building suspense because readers can’t identify a hero, and therefore cannot identify who is safe. It’s to Martin’s credit that the story so often succeeds in surprising fans. Will Daenerys, Tyrion, Cersei, etc. survive? How will the White Walkers invade Westeros? What role will the Children of the Forest play in the coming battle – if be defeated? Who will sit on the Iron Throne? As much as we might not want to admit it, these mysteries will draw most of us back when Season 6 airs next year.
However, the absence of a “Chapter 2” comes at a cost. Unlike many viewers, I don’t mind that Game of Thrones is often sad or depressing. Rather, it’s that the show hasn’t given those darker moments with any greater meaning. Sansa’s rape, Barristan Selmy’s death, Shireen’s sacrifice, and Cersei’s “walk of shame” are all shocking and riveting moments of human drama. But what ties these moments altogether? What did they add to the story? Why did we follow Barristan around for so long just to see him get killed by some punks? If there is a theme to the story, it seems to be “life sucks, and then you die.” Too often, there’s little meaning to the deaths, little payoff for the years we’ve invested in the characters. Game of Thrones risks becoming just a string of shocking moments rather than a coherent story.
As actor Kit Harington (Jon Snow) notes, Game of Thrones “treats drama as real life. And people die and don’t accomplish what we think they’re meant to in real life.” That’s true, but then why write a fantasy story at all? If people want realistic political drama in which good people sometimes fail, we have a genre called “history.” The difference is that history matters because it actually happened. We care about the civil war between Augustus Caesar and Mark Antony because the outcome changed the course of Western history. We care about World War II because the defeat of Hitler led to a new world order. There’s no need to connect random deaths or unconnected events because they might well be random or unconnected. When Emperor Frederick I drowned in a river on his way to fight in the Third Crusade, we can simply understand it as an accident of history.
In fictional stories, we care for a different reason. Presumably, stories give us something that history cannot, or at least not with as much clarity. Perhaps stories provide some deeper moral or philosophical insight. Paul’s victory over the Harkonnens in Dune serves as both a lesson in human adaptability and a warning against charismatic leadership. Sometimes, we consume stories because they stimulate emotional responses we can’t always obtain in our daily lives. We watch Modern Family to laugh and Friday the 13th to feel horror. If storytelling does not provide access to these deeper truths or emotions, we might as well read real history (or at least a historical drama, like HBO’s Rome). After all, truth is often stranger than fiction; the Lannisters and Boltons are nothing compared to the drama of the Caesars or the Medicis or the Clintons.
These problems aren’t new to Season 5, but the show has killed off its most interesting characters and the leftovers simply don’t hold my attention. With Ned Stark, Robb, Tywin Lannister, and Stannis Baratheon, I find myself not caring about the remaining characters. Brienne of Tarth has one note, always stoic and honorable. Ramsay Bolton is an irredeemable sadist (the Bolton emblem is the skin of a flayed man) who needs to die as quickly as possible. Melissandre is so creepy even her nude scenes rub me the wrong way. Dorne is filled with a bunch of one-dimensional characters who simply took time away from the more interesting events in Westeros. It’s an even bigger shame that Jamie got stuck there. Even Arya, a highlight of Season 4, has become dull; washing dead bodies in the House of Black seems to have taken away her endearing spunk and humor.
As I said before, Game of Thrones is very entertaining. I will keep watching the show until the end. However, as of Season 5, I don’t believe it’s a particularly strong story. It’s more like a soap opera, where the dramatic twists and character interactions keep viewers coming back. It’s telling that I haven’t felt any urge to read the books; I feel like once I know about the major twists and character deaths, so there’s little point. Hopefully, the showrunners and Martin can focus their storytelling better during the last two seasons. The show has promised big things for the future, including a White Walker invasion and populist unrest. I hope it can deliver.
It’s not all rotten in Westeros. Next week I’ll discuss why I’m cautiously optimistic about Season 6…