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.