I know I’m not the first person to say this, but Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series was, from the very beginning, almost a parody of the traditional High Fantasy Epic. Most of the main characters were the distilled essence of very well-worn tropes. Arya was the feisty tomboy. Sansa was the dainty princess. Ned Stark was the Honorable Paladin.
Hell, Ned was such a pure archetype of the Honorable Paladin that I laughed out loud several times while reading Game of Thrones. If this was any other book I would have put it down, because I’m not 14 anymore and I’ve read more than enough Honorable Paladin High Fantasy stories. But Martin was also tired of those stories, so he wasn’t just writing another Honorable Paladin Saves The Kingdom story. He was lampooning them, by taking the old heroic archetype and throwing him into a more realistic world. Martin was asking “What happens to the Honorable Paladin when there is no longer a Heroic Narrative protecting him? When there isn’t all the conveniences and providences of a righteous author and romantic audience that creates a plot designed to showcase how great Honor is? If there was no High Fantasy narrative protecting him, how would he fare?”
And the answer was, he’d get his head lopped off before the book was 2/3rds over.
What would happen if the White Savior narrative was dropped into the real world? They’d find that destabilizing a region to save the downtrodden requires a lot of atrocities both along the way, and to hold on to power afterwards. The trope doesn’t survive contact with the complexities of actual power structures.
Somewhere along the way, it grew into more than just parody of old tropes. When a character made a mistake, they paid a steep price. The worst offenders died, and the survivors adapted. They became more nuanced and grey. Villains were shown to have deeper lives, sometimes making the best of a shitty world. The characters were complex because the world was merciless.
The TV show has lost all sight of that. They’ve degenerated into the story that Martin was lampooning when he started out.
The first time this really became clear was when Jamie charged Daenerys. This was a great scene, probably the most memorable of this season. Two characters we both care for are drawn into combat, and only one of them will survive.
Except both of them survive. Without any consequence. A fade-to-black followed by a week’s delay somehow excused Jamie resurfacing miles away, unharmed, and Daenerys losing interest in him. We, as the audience, got our surge of emotion in the charge, without anyone in the story paying any price for it. The characters are unchanged. The storyline is unchanged. The event might as well simply never have happened, for all the difference it made. It was nothing more than a cheap thrill for us. We were fed narrative candy.
Did you not feel empty, afterward? If I wanted narrative candy I’d go back to reading the High Fantasy Epics of my adolescence, full of Honorable Paladins and White Saviors, where the villain is Evil and the protagonist is Good, and in the end Good will win precisely because it IS Good. The narrative demands it.
Further examples of this:
Daenerys, our parody of the White Savior that manages to fuck up everything and become a committer of atrocities, is now just a plain old White Savior again. She left behind her smashed society so we don’t have to see it anymore, and instead she just rides in to save the people of Westeros. Without destroying their society. Without committing atrocities. Without any moral compromise at all, just good ol’ Saving The World. Narrative candy.
Jon Snow has replaced Ned Stark as the Honorable Paladin. Unlike Ned Stark, he doesn’t suffer any repercussions for this. He sticks to his code of honor, is murdered, and is resurrected. He sticks to his code of honor, and continues to draw more and more followers, of ever greater loyalty. He sticks to his code of honor, loses a major battle, but is saved in the end. He runs around north of the wall like an idiot, NOT getting on the damn dragon when they’re trying to evacuate, and is saved in the end. He sticks to his code of honor, doesn’t lie to gain political advantage, and in the end gets EVEN MORE political advantage for doing so! He is rewarded for being the biggest stereotype of Honorable Paladin ever. Narrative candy.
One of my favorite scenes this season was Sansa and Arya uniting. It’s a crowning Moment of Triumph, and it feels fantastic. I almost shouted “You tried to break them up, but you can’t split the Wolf Pack, motherfucker! Aaaaaooooooooooooooo!!!!” And then an hour later I felt empty again. It was more narrative candy. I got my emotion sugar-high. But this is the standard “Family Loyalty Overcomes All Obstacles!” trope. We’ve seen it a million times.
Yes it does feel good, in the moment. That’s why we’ve seen it a million times. It’s the same reason people eat candy. Cheap sugar-highs sell. They’re also boring. Sugar isn’t complex. It’s simple, and tasty, and unmemorable. I still have candy from time to time too! But that’s not why I watch GoT. It’s not why GoT won all those awards. Awards are given for things that are complex, and hard, and different. Not more sugar.
I imagine Martin started writing this series as a reaction against all the High Fantasy narrative candy he was presumably tired of. He’s not Fantasy Jesus or anything, there were problems with his work, and the HBO team did a lot to smooth those out and make a great product. But in the last few seasons, GoT has degenerated into the type of story that Martin had been lampooning.
It’s even happened the same way it had previously been built up. Characters that were too nuanced or complex couldn’t survive in the new, Hollywood-simple world. The ones that could be killed off, were. Bye High Sparrow, bye Queen of Thorns.
The survivors adapted by becoming simpler and reverting to stock tropes. They face no consequences for being stupid fantasy stereotypes, and are often reward for it. A fantasy narrative of honor and loyalty protects them.
The villains are just dumb evil, for the sake of evil. Cersei’s only remaining emotion is spite (and I feel bad for Lena Headey, that must get boring). The Night King has no motivation at all.
We are fed emotional highs without substance or consequence.
The central conflict is no longer jostling among complex characters for advantage and survival. The two sides are now plain old Good vs Evil. That Cersei is on the side of Evil doesn’t change that.
And that’s why Season Seven sucked. It is the culmination of taking something complex and made for adults, and returning it back to the High Fantasy that doesn’t challenge anyone. It just feeds us candy.
That’s why Season Eight will probably suck too. It took a lot of narrative work to create the world and characters we had. Now all that has been destroyed, and there isn’t enough time to rebuild it (nor do I think anyone calling the shots has the desire to). Even if Good doesn’t win at the end of the series, we still will have sat through a standard Good Knights vs Evil Demons story, and a twist like “But the good guys lose!” doesn’t change why it’s boring. It doesn’t return to us what could have been. That destiny has been amputated.
All the characters we cared about are dead already, replaced with Hollywood narrative candy pod-people. Now we just get to watch the shells fight it out. At least the CGI will be pretty.
edit: wow! Guess I should have expected a sudden spike in traffic the day season 8 premiered, but this took me by surprise. :) I have a book coming out now, so if you liked Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series and want something similarly unflinching but in a different setting, check out my novel What Lies Dreaming.
I’ve only seen up through season 6 due to not having an HBO account, and I think I was already noticing this a little bit. I remember saying at one point “I feel like none of the good characters are dying anymore. It seems like they killed Ned Stark to set up the expectation that anyone could die at any time and that good characters can lose. But now they don’t think they have to do that anymore and everyone’s favorite characters always make it.”
I don’t even really feel like you’ve spoiled anything with this post, all of the things you mentioned seem like the inevitable result of the direction the characters are already heading with no major twists.
I wonder if part of this is them trying to twist this story into a good ending. Or maybe they’ll shock us all and kill everyone in season 8.
Are there any good fantasy stories that defy/subvert expectations and tropes like GoT does in its early books and seasons?
I’m sure there are, the high fantasy tropes have been around for a while, and really dominated the landscape in the 70s/80s. I’d bet a lot of people got tired of them, and tried to do something like this. That being said, GoT is the only one that comes to mind. If there are others, they haven’t risen to prominence, and I haven’t run into them yet. :/ Sorry.
To be fair, Dany is still burning people alive for refusing to submit to her rule. And Tyrion is actually starting to question the ethics of serving someone who would burn unarmed prisoners alive for refusing to submit to her rule.
I agree the moral ambiguity is going out of the show, but not quite as quickly as you argue.
Interesting write up. I didn’t actually watch season seven but I am finding the criticism of it amusing.
I absolutley agree with this assessment. However, regardless of the direction the plot ultimately takes I think what set the show apart so much is the great writing, namely dialogue. Watching some of my favorite characters like Tyrion and Lord Varys decay into witless fools has been the most disappointing.
Nothing is worse in Season 7 than the development of the budding romance between Jon and Daenarys – watching their tireless exchanges “Bend The Knee” / “Night King” go on and on like they both had turned into some sort of brain dead parrots was just exhausting. We can just assume this was some sort of half-baked courting routine to create sexual tension by the writers but fell so flat by the time they had sex you kinda didnt care because it didn’t make any sense. The point is GOOD dialogue can take a predictable plot and still make it enjoyable to watch, horrible dialogue on the other hand wont save any plot innovations on the part of the creators. Personally I am expecting Season 8 to suck that way I wont be disappointed.
That’s exactly how I feel. And I used to love the series but the dialogue is so horrendous, it’s almost unwatchable at this point.
This is very well written
The last 2 seasons are bad because the writers have no more material to steal from so they are making it up as they go and they clearly are awful writers, if you have read the books and watched the show you know that the show is a fraction of the story that is a son of fire and ice, the show is just a severely stripped down version and with no source material to use they are flying blind. In all truth the show runners should have planned better and left the more expensive vfx show till later if not cut them all together doing all they could to drag it out till Martin was done with his books or just straight pay him to finish an abridged version for the tv show , this weak stew really sucked and I am sure HBO will lose viewers.
I always believed the people out there that think morally gray is great and so called holy paladin and LOTR stuff is for kids have a morality problem. It has nothing to do with age, it has to to do with not liking being told you have rules. I can do without LOTR in my 40s but only because I have read the books a couple times and seen the movies.
Comparing Wheel of Time, A song of Ice and Fire, Lord of the Rings and Malazan book of the Fallen is a ridiculous idea. They all have there goods and bad, but I think WOT is best but I like the rest. Morally flawed characters do not make a better story, they just make a different story.
Season 7 sucked because its no longer written by Martin, and it happened before season 7, it started happening as they progressed beyond his material and started cutting story lines do to time and cost reasons.
Good points all. I am disappointed George RR gave up the series & let the other writers take it for the last couple of years. I suspect he’s sorry too. HBO will lose money because they couldn’t wait or pay George to finish the series out. I’d love to hear his ideas on the ending.
Can we trust HBO to do the right thing with George’s prequel he’s writing?
I don’t think it’s possible for HBO to lose money on GoT at this point. It has too much of a following, it would take years of dragging it into the ground to make it unprofitable, and even that’s not a sure thing. Look at Simpsons…
Heck, *I’m* even watching Season 8, because I want to see what they’re gonna do with this thing, and I’m no fan of it anymore.
This is so close to how I feel. Hope you don’t mind I shared the link on my instagram.
These comments are all spot on, and I’m so glad I found people who can see how terrible it is! It’s honestly hard for me to watch (for all those reasons already outlined). I’m sure someone also mentioned how they have completed disregarded travelling in the worlds now as well. Even though as we have seen, all the relationships develop during travelling form one city to another in this world. How do we understand the Jamie/Brienne relationship AT ALL without being apart of their trek back? Now, they just cut to the next scene and somehow they are all the way across the world in an instant. All the nuances are gone because the writers are terrible, and have devolved into some regular horrible tv drama. It’s sickening to watch. I hope the last two seasons are eventually redone in the way that he will write them in the book. It’s my great last hope.
Nah, I don’t mind at all. I wouldn’t put something on the internet if I had a problem with it being shared. :)
This is excellent! I’ve had a real issue with the recent seasons and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the problem was. You’ve broken it down wonderfully and gotten to the heart of how GoT lost its way. Sadly, a lot of people seem to happily accept the new, cheap, direction it’s been going in, but it’s heartening to see that there are others who realize that the show is now the opposite of what it first set out to be.
Hahahaha is this serious or a joke ? I won’t contradict every single studity you said here because Is stopped reading that garbage and it will be too long to make you understand why the series is still very good and you’re wrong big time but i cannot retain myself to say two tree things. You’re not happy that the fact Jaime faced Daemerys at no impact or consequences? Everything every single things need to have consequences in a series? Almost everything happening in that series have consequences but hey Jaime facing Daenerys had none shit the series is suck now… It’s ok that some things dont have consequences its not everything who absolutely need to have consequences such theres so many other thing that always have consequences.
You don’t seem to understand that a serie need to evolve it can’t always stay at political manipulation and this and that it would have been so ridiculous that it would have stay like that it was ok for the 5 first season but at some poinr it need to evolve that’s why now it something more important than stupid game for the throne its about reuniting everybody fight together to savs the human kind and it couldn’t have been evolving in a better way. People who wanted the serie still akways about the same fucking thing just doesn’t understand what’s making a good show a good show and all the characters we cared are dead? Wtf Tyrion Daemerys Davos Arya Jon Jorah the Hound Jaime etc are still alive… So you only cared about Oberyn Ned Robb ( boring character) ??? Wow very special post here anyway suck to be you continue to whine while ill ve enjoying big time the great final of this great show. At least it was funny to read you
I hope English is not your first language. Any nuanced viewer who hasn’t succumbed to blind fanboy/fangirldom can see that the show has significantly slipped. The dialogue is lame. Every single thing that happens directly serves the plot. Remember in Season 1, when Baratheon, Jaime and a Kingsguard were talking about their first kills? Tremendous dialogue that hinted at and gave a glimpse of a deeper world. Those moments are gone, never to return, because Weiss and Benioff either don’t have it in them or don’t care to try. The entire tone of the show is just so off from what it was. I hesitate to call the current writers hacks but the show is coming off that way. Season 8, Episode 4 is the nadir, I didn’t even recognize the first hour of the show. If you can be content with a halfhearted attempt at ending a once great show (oh, Dany forgot about the Iron Fleet) I pity your uncritical mind.
Welp, I didn’t want to believe this even after realizing it midway through season 7; but after the first 2 episodes of season 8 I must admit you were right. Unfortunately, I and many others will still watch season 8 because after all these years you kinda feel commited to finishing it. The producers know this too – they can spew out half-assed content like this and people will still watch it.
I do not believe this is going to stop by season 8, GoT is too profitable. They will milk it to death with prequels, spin-offs, stand alone movies etc.
Yep, season 8 sucks like a hoover vacuum. The Night Kings lame death, Misandei’s pointless death (don’t forget the chains that put the woman of color in) Yep, it sucks.
I find it a bit funny to read some of the internet fans still positing wild theories. I feel like saying, “No, you’re theorizing about a different show, and all of those possibilities are gone.” Personally, I have to finish because, why not? But I now endure the episodes instead of relish them. All of the depth is gone. Sad, but it’s partly GRRM’s fault for not finishing Winds of Winter in a reasonable time. I think he’s tired of the forward storyline (that’s why he’s working on prequels, the Targaryen’s interest him more) and doubt he will finish.
Great job at predicting the terrible season 8