No one is going to deny that Game of Thrones is a financial success: HBO’s big money maker. In the past that status has felt earned. The production value was off the charts, the special effects and action sequences were uniquely ambitious and believable for television, and the story was, at its worst, passable. Unfortunately, while the production value, special effects and action have all enjoyed a steady increase in quality over the years, the quality of the story has gradually eroded away until the climax of this latest season played more like bad fan fiction than a legitimate part of the series. So, without further “gilding the lily,” as A Knight’s Tale’s Geoffrey Chaucer would say, let’s take a look at some of the places that Game of Thrones goes wrong.
Here there be spoilers.
A lot of people have pointed to Season 7, Episode 7, Beyond the Wall, as the worst episode that the show has ever put out. The criticisms that I’ve read about the episode mostly focus on its geographic improbability. Jon and company go beyond the wall to retrieve a wight, they get into trouble, and send Gendry running back to the wall for help. He gets there, seemingly after ten minutes have passed, and sends a raven south to Daenerys. The message reaches her pretty much instantly, and she hops on the back of her dragon, reaching our besieged heroes after, at most, a night has passed. Given the vast distances involved, the timing of all this strains even the most generous credulity. In other words, it isn’t consistent with the established rules of the world, and the obviousness of the inconsistency is grating.
Beyond this, much of the episode’s action involves mediocre banter arising from the already ridiculous coincidence of having so many interconnected characters turn up in one place at one time. These conversations do nothing to develop the characters involved, serving as little more than lame call-backs to better scenes in earlier seasons. It’s possible that the show runners thought they were increasing suspense by making us wait longer for the inevitable explosion of action at the end of the episode. But, for that to work, the audience needs to be thinking about the impending action. The mediocre banter in this episode does not remind us of the coming conflict. Instead, it distracts us, dissipating any suspense that has been building. Worse, the dialogue does nothing to develop or establish the characters. It flaps about, useless and unmoored, existing only to entertain. As a result, it bores. This poor writing is also in evidence in the season’s final episode, where most of the episode’s long runtime is devoted to mediocre exchanges between characters.
But the biggest problems with Game of Thrones, for me, have less to do with bad dialogue and more to do with poor character development. This takes many forms. Characters who we are told are supposed to be intelligent nevertheless do stupid things time and time again. Our heroes spend half the seventh season coming up with reasons to avoid crushing Cersei despite the fact that they could destroy her at any time with minimal civilian casualties. They actually risk their lives to forge a truce with her, despite lacking any kind of assurance that she will hold to that truce. And when Dany shows up to save Jon after their incredibly foolish plan goes awry, he inexplicably decides to keep killing wights for several minutes instead of getting on the dragon and getting the heck out of there. And these characters are supposed to be intelligent?
Throughout the season, decisions and feelings change without the instigations for those changes being clear. After refusing for an entire season, Jon suddenly and inexplicably decides to bend the knee to Dany at the end of Episode 7. Why? The show never really explains. It could be because of a sudden attack of love/lust for her, it could be because she just saved his life, or it could be because of the tiny little throwaway line Tormund feeds him earlier in the episode about not being too proud. No matter the reason, the show utterly neglects to trace out his thought process, despite the fact that this is a pivotal change for one of the main characters. Jon’s decision strikes us as random rather than motivated. As a result, the audience is left confused and unsatisfied.
Even when the show tries to lay the groundwork for change this season, it seems to do it by half measures. Take the romance between Jon and Dany, for example. To believe that two people are falling in love, we have to see it. But the show doesn’t quite manage to show us a budding romance. We hear some heavy breathing from Dany when she and Jon view the cave paintings together at the end of Episode 5, and when Jon decides to undertake his suicide mission beyond the Wall she stares at him a little teary-eyed. But that’s it. It’s barely enough to suspect she might have feelings towards him, and not at all enough to see that he might have feelings towards her. The writers try to cover the gap with a few throwaway lines:
But we never actually see Jon “staring at her good heart.” In short, we don’t get any visible signs of them falling in love until they actually fall into bed together. We know its happening because we are explicitly told, not because it is self-evident. As a result, it’s hard to believe all that strongly in the romance between them.
In truth, character inconsistencies have plagued the show for much longer than just this season. Jon’s behavior during The Battle of the Bastards in Season 6 seems miserably out of character. And Stannis’s decision to burn his daughter as a sacrifice in Season 5 comes even further out of left field than Jon’s decision to swear fealty to Dany in Season 7. In both cases, it isn’t so much the decision itself that I find fault with. I can easily imagine a world in which it feels correct to their characters for Jon to bend the knee and for Stannis to burn Shireen. But in both cases their characters simply weren’t ready to make that leap yet. If the audience does not see a character change and develop to the point where he or she could reasonably be expected to make a choice, then that choice will feel random and unbelievable.
In other situations, the show has taken otherwise believable characters from the books and altered them to the point where they are no longer internally consistent. In the books, Shea is a selfish girl that Tyrion falls for despite knowing that she doesn’t love him. When she betrays him, we believe it. When he kills her for betraying him, we believe that too. But the show changes Shea’s character in the first four seasons, making her into a compelling and honorable woman who truly cares for Tyrion. And there’s nothing wrong with that change; it actually makes her a much more interesting character. There’s no rule that the characters in the show have to reflect the characters in the books. But a change in character ought to come with a change in the actions that character takes. Because the Shea we see in the show is a different and more honorable person than the one we see in the books, it feels out of character to us when she betrays Tyrion in the fourth season. It seems wrong, random and unsatisfying. And Tyrion killing her seems even more unbelievable given the nature of their relationship. The writers took steps to try and bring them both to that point, but it was not enough. In order to make the change in Shea’s personality work, they ought to have changed her ending to better fit her character and relationships.
The show of Game of Thrones started out with an excellent roadmap for character development in the form of A Song of Ice and Fire. George R.R. Martin’s books are full of compelling and believable characters. Every decision those characters make feels motivated, and every thought in their heads is internally consistent. That is not to say that the show could never have been as good as the books, merely that it took on a set of extremely well-crafted characters whose stories and development arcs were already largely in place. In the early seasons the show stuck to those arcs rather closely, and clearly benefited from the strengths of the series’s original creator. But the show seems to be having trouble standing on its own without the scaffolding provided by the books. The further the show gets from Martin’s work, the less smoothly the characters develop, and the more holes appear in the narrative. On some level it feels as though the show has fallen victim to its own reputation, substituting action, surprise deaths, and gratuitous violence for what made it compelling in the first place: a well crafted story, complete with believable characters. HBO has one more season to turn it back around; with any luck they’ll learn from their mistakes and deliver an ending that was worth the wait.
In the meantime, I highly recommend that you check out Martin’s original book series: A Song of Ice and Fire.