I had hoped I would get the opportunity to talk about Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto this month, or maybe even begin what’ll probably amount to a several-month-long discussion of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, both of which would better follow along with the book discussions that I do once every month. However, as I’ve dutifully watched these final six episodes of Game of Thrones, it became pretty apparent that I wouldn’t be doing my job as a storyteller if I didn’t talk about how such a massive television series failed its audience so grandly with its climax and resolution.
Obviously, this post is as full of spoilers as Winterfell was full of wights, so proceed down these dark halls with caution.
I should add, for those new here, that while my points of discussion below are my opinions, they are opinions based off of a lot of experience as both a story-consumer and a storyteller. I look at the missteps of a narrative in the hope that they can be used as a lesson for future stories. It’s less of a place to rant and more a place to ensure we’re encouraging the best stories possible.
The Wheel Doesn’t Always Have to be Broken.
The premier of Game of Thrones opened up with some men of the Nights Watch encountering a mythical foe that we audience would later learn were White Walkers and wights. They were frightening, a force we couldn’t comprehend. In an epic fantasy series, such a force is to be expected. It was clear from the beginning that the Night King would be the Big Boss that the characters would barely overcome.
This is where I bring in the concept of a circular ending. Not too long ago, I wrote a post discussing different plot archetypes, and using them as a way to help plot out your narrative. Circular endings are a similar tool for narratives, no matter how short or long they may be. Like with your general plot archetypes, circular endings are tried and true methods of ending a story. By both beginning and ending with the great White Walker threat, there would have been a great overall build-up and release of tension, followed by the resolution of the great series.
While Danaerys might insist on breaking the wheel, and people might insist, narratively speaking, that “wheels” such as the circular ending archetype make for dull storytelling, one only has to compare the concern we felt for our main characters as they fought the Night King versus the concern we felt for those same characters as they “fought” against Cersei to realize we have tropes for a reason. My first great disappointment with this season was how quickly they dispatched the White Walker threat–which, although it took an entire 90 minutes, still was only a single episode where they used the massively disappointing kill-the-boss-and-every-foot-soldier-immediatelt-falls cliché. The tension built over the course of seven seasons felt cheapened by the actual episode (made even more frustrating by poor visibility, idiocy on Jon’s and Dany’s part, and far fewer major character deaths than even the Red Wedding).
Shock Value Doesn’t Make For Epic Storytelling.
Arya has been my favorite character from the beginning. She was tough, defiant, and determined to survive. The slight of hand she pulled to kill the Night King had me screaming just as loud as the next person. That did not mean that, narratively speaking, it was right to give that job to her. For as long as the show had been foreshadowing the threat of the White Walkers, they’ve likewise subtly been suggesting that Jon Snow would ultimately be the one to defeat them. His role at the Wall, his interaction with the wildlings, and his being brought back from the dead all built up to the impression that Jon Snow would be the one to deal the death blow.
While Arya was given Melisandre’s prophecy regarding eye color, and while Arya became a skilled assassin, nothing about her character’s storyline suggested she would play a major role in killing the White Walkers. Blue eyes were just another eye color on the list of people she would kill, proof that she would take many lives. Her role in the overall story, it seemed, was to kill Cersei or perhaps even Danaerys, when the time came, not to kill the Otherly villain of the show. The only reason she was the character to kill the Night King was because no one expected it.
As George Martin said in an interview: “If you planned your book, that the butler did it, and then you read [on] the internet that someone has figured out that the butler did it, and you suddenly change it midstream that the chambermaid who did it, then you screw up the whole book because you’ve got this foreshadowing early on, and you’ve got these little clues you’ve planted. Now they’re dead ends and you have to introduce other clues and you’re ret-conning it. It’s a mess.” (I found it on a YouTube compilation video, 2:02 minutes in.) Arya was the chambermaid. It was sloppy.
Have a Concrete Understanding of Your Magic System.
When the great battle comes, especially when it involves Otherly entities, it’s just as important to fully understand the power and limitations of the various magic systems at play. Game of Thrones failed twofold. The major one, the one many others have already mentioned, was the questionable life and death of the Night King. It’s important to explain what drives the villains just as much as it is to explain the protagonists, and Game of Thrones has never shied away from such explanations before. However much you hated Cersei, you respected her love for her children. However cringey Ramsay was, at least you knew it was bred from some sort of mad desire to prove himself worthy in the eyes of his father. The White Walkers, on the other hand, were just a mass of bodies there to threaten the protagonists.
Just as unfortunate was how they handled the Night King’s death. Of all the ways they could have killed him, the way he died was how we least expected. The show did not bother to explain why dragonfire couldn’t kill or even weaken the Night King, just as it didn’t bother to explain why Arya’s Valyrian Steel dagger could do the deed. It doesn’t explain why killing the Night King should in fact immediately kill all of his underling foot soldiers and captains and undead dragon. It doesn’t matter if an explanation exists out there. If it was not shown directly, it does not count.
The second failure was in the White Walker’s connection to winter. It was supposed to be the greatest winter the world had seen in quite a long time, and it was suggested that the White Walkers’ presence had something to do with it. A question they never addressed was what happened to winter once the undead were defeated. A small question in the grand scheme of things, but we’re back to Martin’s words: you’ve got yourself some dead ends.
Foreshadowing is Not the Same as Character Development.
With six episodes and
two three major villains to defeat, there’s obviously not going to be a lot of time for fluff. A few things are going to be rushed. But here’s the thing. A good writer has to know how much storytelling they can fit into one episode or season or book. If you commit to writing your climax and resolution in a six-episode season, you better have a good grasp on pacing.
The show’s writers clearly didn’t, especially in the case of Danaerys’s “madness.” They did not have time to properly show her becoming crazed with grief or power. They only showed characters talking about the Mad King, repeating the whole “when a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin” bit, showing Danaerys as a hot mess because she’s grieving Missandei’s death (come on. Grief does not equal madness), and suggesting that Danaerys’s firm hand against the Masters of Slaver’s Bay were supposed to be some form of foreshadowing for when she burned King’s Landing to the ground.
In the next episode, however, she is not demanding they burn them all. She’s on a war path, and that feels out of character, but there is little trace of her “madness” except perhaps in her blindness about different beliefs on what’s considered right and good. It makes her razing of King’s Landing seem exponentially out of character, when she has only ever fought to protect and defend the helpless by directly attacking those in charge. The show wanted Danaerys dead, and it was the right call, since Game of Thrones could not have had a peaceful resolution with her still alive, but they used “foreshadowing” and they told rather than showed her madness up until the point of her “mad event.” If you’re going to make a beloved character walk down a dark path, you’d best make sure that there’s actually a road that leads them there, and that that road is one your character would have logically taken, not knowing where it would lead them. To do otherwise, to kill Danaerys’s character the way they did, is both sloppy and shameful.
SHOCK VALUE DOES NOT MAKE FOR EPIC STORYTELLING.
When a story puts emphasis on a certain element, there needs to be a thoughtful, sensical resolution to that element. One of the Big Questions of the show was: Who’s going to sit on the Iron Throne by the end of it? While the throne itself was melted by Drogon (turn your head a couple inches to the left, honey), there was still the question of who was going to rule the 7 Kingdoms. I will thank both the old gods and the new that they shot down Sam’s democracy suggestion–too many rebellion stories have turned to democracy after uprooting a tyrant, but democracy isn’t without its many faults, and shouldn’t be considered the “perfect solution” against tyrants–and that they kept some sort of monarchy.
The system is interesting, I will give them that. Their choice of a leader, Bran the Broken, however, is laughable. Not three episodes prior, he denied lordship of Winterfell because he had no interest in ruling. That went with his character arc. But, again, they denied countless better-qualified rulers such as Sansa, Tyrion, even Gendry in favor of a boy who was never meant to rule. Why? Because it would shock the audience. For good reason. Out of all the candidates to take the throne (one of them being no one at all), Bran’s candidacy makes the least amount of sense. No one should have listened to Tyrion about how to rule when he stood before them in chains, condemned for betraying Danaerys. No one should have accepted Bran as king, least of all being Bran himself. The fact that the show runners took that route just to shock the audience killed the resolution just as much as the emotionless death of Danaerys did.
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Okay, that’s it. That’s all I got, for the main points anyway. Tell me if you agree or disagree down in the comments below.