One of the great things about A Song of Ice and Fire was that anyone could die. No one was safe.
In this season on Game of Thrones, we saw a surprising though not unexpected death.
That of George R R Martin. And pretty much everything that made The Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones an unique narrative experience.
What makes GRRM unique is that his writing is firmly character-driven. Most books you read follow the classic Greek three-act plot structure: things get bad, things get worse, things sort themselves out. The primary driver is the plot, things move from A to B, then from B to C, and if the author went to a writing class, the characters also have arcs, but these are pretty much always secondary to the story.
GRRM threw this style out of the window from his first book itself, just like Jamie did Bran. Told through multiple perspectives, A Song of Ice and Fire follows characters, like billiard balls on a table, as GRRM taps them this direction and then that, as they roll around, hit each other, and fly off in unexpected directions, creating a world that is alive with fantasy and reality in equal measure, dragons flying and zombies walking, and yet people reacting as people do, and happenstance changing the best laid plans, as they do in this world. The story grows from these hits and rebounds, but is never allowed to drive the narrative. This sometimes leads to meandering threads that lead nowhere (Psst…book 4) but most often to absolute brilliance—Catelyn Stark taking the decision to take Tyrion hostage, Arya and the Hound’s journey together, Jamie riding back to save Brienne of Tarth, and I could go on and on.
As the show has gone on, it has deviated more and more from the books. Initially, that was actually good, because it allowed the show’s creators Beinoff & Weiss to tighten up some of the loose stitching, like eliminating the absolutely redundant story of Jeyne Poole, effectively a much-needed re-edit of GRRMs last two books. Then, I guess the suits at HBO realized that they needed to stop this leisurely world-building, tapping their watches like an angry examination invigilator, and B&W took over, and I guess also this is the time GRRM just stepped back, and in the hands of more conventional artists, Game of Thrones fell back to becoming yet another plot-based saga, where people are shoehorned to behave in certain ways, so that the story moves forward, the sprawling real world shrunk to an over-engineered story-board, the gentle joys of characters playing off each other reduced to Marvel-and-DC-like set-piece spectacles.
In the rush to put the baby to bed in two seasons, the first thing to go this season has been the notion of time. Journeys that took seasons now are over in a transition. The Net has pointed out to the ridiculousness of the Westeros Expendables standing surrounded by wights and white walkers all the while a raven flew back to the Entitled Dragon Queen and she flew back on a dragon. It’s like the guy who wrote Batman’s escape from the Lazarus Pit has started writing for the Game of Thrones.
The thing about world creation is you get to make the rules once—-dragons, zombies, magical schools and whatever the else you want, but then you got to stick to it, changing the rules midway just to make the story move forward is lazy story-telling.
As lazy as it is to have Bran, the three-eyed raven, as the all-knowing living Deus Ex Machina.
We need people to know Jon’s parentage so that the story moves forward. But everyone who was there when Jon was born is dead. So what do we do? Idea ! Bran just knows.
But because it would be inconvenient for Bran to tell his sisters that their half brother is not who he thinks he is, he keeps this vital bit of information to himself. Yet he quickly reveals it to Samwell Tarly, because that would be a cool thing to voice over when nephew and aunt make love.
Wait there is more.
We need the Stark sisters to know about Littlefinger’s betrayal. But how? Oh yes idea. Bran just knows. But since we also need to give Littlefinger a crowd-pleasing death in the last episode, we won’t let Bran say this the first day he meets his sister, that the man hanging around her killed their father, and he should immediately be dispatched. Oh no, that would be too easy. So instead we let him go on creepily about her nightmarish wedding night and save that important bit to the end. If only for the expression on Littlefinger’s face.
Personally, I didn’t quite mind much the bird-brained scheme to go up North to capture a wight. I know it was done to provide a set-piece to kill a dragon, because how else would the dragon get killed, but again in GGRM’s universe, men were allowed to do stupid things.
What however was not allowed was linear predictability. Randomness was always a part of the world, as it is in ours, and yet in the counting down to the end, all of that is lost in favor of oppressive story advancement.
Consider the dragon pit summit. Everything pretty much happens linearly. Old friends give looks. Old enemies give their five second challenges. Kneel before me mother of dragons makes a late entrance on dragon. There is a carefully engineered aura of danger, a sense of impending doom, but given that no one gets killed nowadays, except extras and Littlefinger, we pretty much know nothing Westeros shaking is going to happen. Now the GRRM we know, I am sure he would have done things differently. That over-inquisitive guard walking past the imprisoned wight would have opened the door thinking there is treasure inside, gotten bitten, and now just as all the grand poobahs sit down for a world summit, they would realize that there is a wight and a freshly infected running through King’s Landing, and the White Walkers have arrived, without really arriving, and all the best laid plans of men and dragons have suddenly gone for the proverbial toss.
For me personally, the most frustrating thing about this season is how it is set on reducing to insignificance some of the series’s most poignant sequences. The moment when Jamie and Brienne, my favorite “couple” of the show, bid goodbye silently knowing they would be on opposite sides of the fence the next time they meet, if they meet at all, is now retroactively ruined knowing they are going to meet, not be on opposing sides, and then have the most mundane of interactions. Realistic perhaps, but still. And a personal gripe, given my favorite character is Jamie, is that I cannot think of a better way for him to go out than charging a dragon, the grandest exit for the last of the noble knights. But then again, either because the prophecy of Cersei’s death must come true, or Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has contracted himself into the last season, that does not happen. Everyone is alive, even Mr. Friendzone, whose character arc has finished seasons ago, and frankly I was not expecting him coming back from his psoriasis. But even he has.
Because no one really moderately important seems to die in GoT any more.
Still not all doom and gloom though, of course. There are some lovely vintage moments here and there. Nymeria turning away from Arya. The two Stark sisters on the ramparts remembering their father. Olenna Tyrell’s last scene, five minutes of awesomeness that elevates that whole episode to one of the best ever. And the pacing, I have no problem with the pacing per se, just with the subversion of everything that defined the uniqueness of GRRM’s story-telling.
Here is wishing that the metaphorically dead George Martin comes back in the last few episodes that are left.
For in his world, death is not an end.
Being predictable is.