Winter hasn’t arrived yet on Game of Thrones, but there’s still a bit of “winter of our discontent” going on. Season five veered way off George R.R. Martin’s road, with shall we say mixed results. Here’s how to get Thrones back on its game.
Spoilers for everything that’s aired on television or published in book form ahead...
So nobody seems to think that Game of Thrones season five was a major letdown, per se. The consensus among everyone I’ve talked to is that it was the worst season of the show, thus far, but there were still plenty of standout moments, and lots to admire. (Some people have sworn off the show due to its addiction to sexual violence, however.)
And there are certain ways that this show is improving on the books — chiefly, in showing the threat of the White Walkers more clearly.
It’s more that we’re seeing warning signs: indications that going off the Martin script might not be working entirely for the best in every case. (See: Dorne.) And there are also signs that this isn’t quite the show we fell in love with, five years ago. As the show races towards its conclusion in two (or maybe three) years, we can already see early warning signs that the wheels could fall off the cart as it reaches its finish line.
So after mulling it over for a few days, I’ve come up with some totally subjective thoughts on how to patch up this wounded dragon.
Get back to the spirit of the books
Season five was always going to be a tricky beast — the options were to spread out the fourth and fifth books in Martin’s series (A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons) over two or three seasons, or to condense them massively. Martin clearly preferred the former option, but you would have heard howls across the land if season five had consisted of nothing but Cersei and Daenerys failing to rule their realms, while wounded and traumatised people prey on each other.
But the structure of Martin’s books is there for a reason — the sheer number of horrible twists that happen in A Storm of Swords is kind of astonishing. Jaime Lannister, Robb Stark, King Joffrey, Tywin Lannister... A Storm of Swords is a drunken orgy of carnage, and the two books that follow are, in many ways, the hangover.
This, in part, represents Martin’s obsession with the horrors of war. Lots of authors convey that war is hell, but fewer of them spend time showing that the aftermath of war can be even worse. After war ends, everyone is traumatised but there’s no longer the sense of glorious purpose to carry you forward, and there are always people who won’t admit the war is over. (E.g. Stannis.)
In some ways, Game of Thrones season five tries to keep up the format of A Storm of Swords, which proved so buzz-worthy in seasons three and four. What’s this year’s Red Wedding? This year’s Purple Wedding? Etc. etc. Hence the endless parade of character deaths, shocking turns, and terrible surprises.
It would have been a bolder, riskier choice to spend more time dwelling on the scars that previous events left behind — but it might have felt more emotionally satisfying, even if the story was still condensed to fit into one season.
I’m anticipating The Winds of Winter will be the most depressing book George R.R. Martin has ever written — it’s right there in the title! — and presumably Thrones producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss know what happens in it. They probably can’t bring the show back in line with the book, given the cumulative effect of so many changes. But they can definitely consider going darker, not in terms of “bloody and shocking” but in terms of real, serious, emotional and psychological scars.
Not delving more deeply into Martin’s obsession with the dreadful after-effects of carnage is probably the biggest mistake Game of Thrones made this year. (Well, okay, Dorne.)
And that brings us to...
Remember this is a show about politics
People didn’t fall in love with Game of Thrones because it lopped off Ned Stark’s head — nobody would have lasted that many episodes if they weren’t already hooked.
Rather, everyone fell in love with this show because it’s a great political drama. It’s basically The West Wing in Medieval garb. And it’s still at its best when it’s plunging into issues of politics and governance — which happen to be the central focus of the fourth and fifth books in Martin’s series.
In Crows and Dragons, Westeros is basically broke, and there’s not enough food supplies stored up for what’s likely to be an epic long winter. The legitimacy of King Tommen, widely known to be a bastard born of incest, is hanging by a thread, and Cersei doesn’t care about the crown’s debts or other logistical issues. And then (as seen in the show) Cersei unleashes religious fanatics on the streets.
It’s a complicated set of problems, which the show makes a stab at addressing. We do hear about the Iron Throne’s debts to the Iron Bank, and we see Mace Tyrell making a trip to Braavos. (In the books, Cersei empowers the fanatical Sparrows to get forgiveness of debts to the church, to reduce the financial strain.) There are hints that Tommen’s rule is none too secure.
But a lot of the major political developments this season happen off-screen, and the show doesn’t fully use its major advantage over the books — the ability to depict scenes that happen when the books’ POV characters aren’t present. I was itching for a few scenes of Cersei’s uncle Kevan Lannister trying to fix the mess Cersei left behind, for example. We still get some great scenes of characters like Varys discussing the possibility of a just ruler, but without a bit more attention to detail, the land of Westeros starts to feel more like a painted backdrop. This is the thing the show excelled at in previous seasons, often adding political discussions that weren’t in the books.
And meanwhile, the politics of Meereen are inscrutable — Daenerys’s moves throughout this past season are erratic, to say the least, and we never get a real sense of how it’s affecting her ability to rule. She executes one of her own followers, feeds one of the Wise Masters to her dragons and threatens to do the same to the rest, and then suddenly changes her mind and agrees to a political marriage and a major concession on the fighting pits.
Throughout the season, her conflict is boiled down to a need to stop an insurgent group, the Sons of the Harpy, but we get no sense of exactly how much support she really has in Meereen at this point, and whether she’s really even in charge.
The bottom line is, Game of Thrones excelled at showing how the sausage was made, in previous seasons. There were scenes where we got to see more political machinations, and we saw the conflicts in a society where power is based on inherited titles, military power, and money.
My gut feeling is that at least some of the complaints about excessive violence and a reliance on “shocking” turns of events this season came from the fact that we weren’t seeing enough of the context to make those situations feel grounded.
Nail down some character arcs.
And speaking of Daenerys, I sort of lost track of her character this season. Her development seemed to be all over the map — and her decision to change her mind and reopen the fighting pits feels capricious, rather than feeling like a result of character growth.
I get that some of this is because she’s uncertain, and thus she does whatever her advisers tell her in the moment. But I still can’t quite sketch out an arc for her that goes from executing the ex-slave to riding away on Drogon. (I think part of this is that the death of Ser Barristan, which isn’t in the books, naturally pushes her in a direction that the show doesn’t actually want her to follow.)
Game of Thrones was mostly really good, in years past, at creating very clear arcs for its major characters — even when those characters had less decent arcs in the books. Like Robb Stark, whose love affair with Talisa is well sketched out, allowing us to see how he gets to the Red Wedding.
But this year, some major characters felt like they were twisting in the wind, somewhat. Sansa Stark comes to mind — the first half of the season, she’s built up as on the track to become Littlefinger Jr., another master manipulator and brilliant schemer. And then (Oops!) she marries Ramsay Bolton, and gets rolled back to Sansa 1.0, the victim we saw back in seasons two and three.
Is the point here that Sansa overestimated her own resourcefulness? Or that trying to be Littlefinger is just a terrible idea? In any case, part of the reason why Sansa’s suffering in the latter episodes was so hard to watch was simply because it felt like a bait-and-switch, in terms of character development.
Also, Jaime Lannister’s arc this season was ostensibly about grappling with his guilt and self-loathing after the death of Tywin... but the show seemed to have too much fun with Dornish swashbuckling and sexy bastard girls to plumb those depths much. Ditto for Tyrion’s own complicated feelings about murdering his own lover, which seem to get lost after the middle of the season.
I guess the unifying thing about all of these situations is that they’re about servicing plot development, rather than character development. The show needs Daenerys, Tyrion, Jaime and Sansa to get from A to B, in order to set up plot developments, and so they’re being pushed around the board. Some of this comes from Martin’s books, but a lot of it comes from the show’s own exigencies.
(That said, nothing in the show this season was as bizarrely out-of-character as Jon Snow deciding to ride off and fight Ramsay Bolton, at the end of A Dance With Dragons. I didn’t buy that decision, and it felt purely as though it was aimed at giving the Night’s Watch an added incentive to stab him.)
Rethink the pervasive sexual violence thing
Remember “sexposition”? It was a big deal, at one point. Game of Thrones used to have endless scenes of naked bodies, plastered all over the screen, just so the viewers wouldn’t get up to make a sandwich while the characters talked about Robert’s Rebellion. Actually, the show used to contain large amounts of softcore porn in general, which was part of its winning formula.
Now, Game of Thrones is apparently secure enough that it’s more or less done away with the gratuitous nudity. There’s still nudity, but there’s a lot less of it — and you can count the number of gratuitous nude scenes this year on the fingers of Ser Davos’s hand.
The point is, the show already kicked one addiction. Now it needs to kick another. This is a violent show in general, and it’s only going to get more violent as everything gets worse and more desperate for the characters. And it’s based on a book series that is absolutely full of rape and other sexualised violence, as part of Martin’s obsession with showing war (and human nature) at their worst.
But the endless violation is very different on screen than it is on the page, and after all while it no longer feels like you’re making a statement – it feels, if anything, normalising. It feels like the show is saying, “These things are to be expected.” And in a show made for a 21st-century audience, which is clearly about some very real 21st-century concerns, rape should be handled with care. And bringing back the earlier point about showing the aftermath, portraying a major character’s rape necessarily means exploring how it affects them afterward.
As Game of Thrones becomes more violent and horrifying, it’s going to need more context — more attention to worldbuilding, and also more attention to character. And that means that certain types of violence, which are highly personal and intimate (you don’t need to strip someone naked to chop their head off) require even more attention to character and context, and thus should be used sparingly.
In general, I’m still incredibly excited for Game of Thrones season six — this show has the best cast on television, and when the characters are allowed to grow in ways that feel logical, it’s also one of the best political dramas ever made.
But as Thrones gets further and further away from whatever George R.R. Martin is doing in his next book, it needs to pay even more attention to adhering to the things that made Martin’s saga so great in the first place.