Game Of Thrones Is Story Porn

Game Of Thrones is finally over. Not as a television show; as something we have to consider taking seriously as high-quality entertainment.

***

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES SEASON 8 EPISODE 3 — but to be honest, they spoiled it far more than I ever could …

Image for post
Image for post
image from HBO

Game Of Thrones is finally over. I don’t mean as a television show; there are still three more episodes to come. I mean as something we have to consider taking seriously as high-quality entertainment. There was some hope remaining after an excellent second episode of the eighth and final season. But after the longest (and darkest) episode to date, we can conclude beyond all doubt that while Game Of Thrones is certainly high budget, it is exceptionally low quality, and can surely not be redeemed from this point on.

This may confuse some readers who either enjoyed the episode or have absorbed the general impression of the total epic awesomeness of the Battle of Winterfell. I too enjoyed the episode. But I also enjoyed Bad Boys and Transformers. I am not arguing that it was not enjoyable. I am arguing that it was not good. This is a shame, because it used to be very good.

But whatever I mean by ‘goodness’, isn’t it necessarily subjective? To an extent, yes, but there are elements of Game Of Thrones that have undoubtedly at least changed as the show has progressed. The narrative pace used to be slower and more deliberate. Plot lines unravelled over multiple seasons to emphasize that they were largely driven by the development of characters and the changing nature of the morally ambiguous decisions these characters would make. Great care was taken to ensure that characters’ decisions made sense based on what the audience knew about their background, state of mind, and aspirations. The dialogue was dense and original.

If anything, the problem is that the showrunners have increasingly tried to make the show more appealing to more people. Since the story passed the constraints imposed by more or less following the books, the trend towards popular appeal has markedly accelerated towards Hollywood inanity.

I have not read the books, and in fact I binged seasons one through six in preparation for season seven, so none of this is coming from a kind of curmudgeonly hipsterdom, yearning for a time when only I was cool enough to be into the show. There was no such time. I got into it because it had become so popular that I no longer wanted to miss out. At that point in the series, this was largely merited. In short, it used to be very well written. Now it is stupid and banal.

It is notable, for example, that almost every witty remark in season eight is really a quote from when the show wasn’t awful. This practice arguably began in drips and drabs in season seven, and was considered a little odd by most of the audience:

The exchange referenced here between Bran and Littlefinger at least had value both rhetorically and to the plot: the audience learns the extent of Bran’s new superpowers before they become crucial later in the season, but here to conclusively demonstrate that Littlefinger’s mischievous scheming has finally met its match. This is all revealed by Bran quoting Littlefinger’s years earlier quip to this effect back to him, as if to say that in seeing through time, Bran can see through Littlefinger. It was a bit weird, but it was also cute. It worked. It was serviceable.

But now this exact trope happens so often in the dialogue, and as the payoff of scenes no less, that what is served cannot be passed off as any plot point or nuance of meaning, but high fiving the audience for getting it at all. In episode two, Bran says to Jaime Lannister, “that thing you said seven seasons ago!” — or at least he may as well have, because nothing was achieved by this line. In this episode, Arya says to Sansa, “that thing our brother said seven seasons ago!” — in a context in which it could only possibly have made sense as a gratuitous reference to itself, so as not to have to write anything that might be independently remembered.

The only episode with genuinely original and interesting dialogue in the past two seasons was episode two of season eight. The sad thing is that what made this episode so great was that it seemed like it came from far earlier in the series. It was just characters talking. It was funny, charming, and intriguing. It was completely unlike what we have come to expect, as there was no CGI, no racing from one plot point to the next, and no out of character decisions that are clearly just to service something totally epically awesome later on.

Compare this to the decision in the writing of season seven — the first to completely depart from the books — to totally disregard the notion that it takes time to travel in Westeros, diligently built up over six seasons prior and key to numerous previous plot points. Consider that this in turn required a cohort of main characters making a series of utterly inexplicable decisions to try to kidnap a wight, solely to engineer a rescue by Daenerys, in turn solely to engineer the Night King killing and reviving a dragon. None of these decisions, on the part of any character, were remotely sensible, nor were they even possible to enact by the physics already set down by the show. But, hey, ice dragons! Pretty cool, huh?

And compare to the most recent episode, in which it seems like tens of thousands die, somehow only two of which are at best tertiary characters. explaining why none of this made sense in military terms, with probably the most criminally misused assets being the dragons. They are primarily used for mid-air fights in which it is not at all clear what is happening or why it matters. One of my watching party rather brilliantly said after this scene, “I feel like we need video game health bars for the dragons because that must have been consequential or they wouldn’t have shown it, but I don’t have any idea to what extent it really was.”

The Night King has no reason to expose himself given he is literally his already dead army’s only weakness. But he does so anyway because he alone has to kill Bran since Bran is the memory of the world the Night King wants to erase. I’m not even joking. That’s the incredibly stupid reason that the audience is asked to get on board with, solely so as to engineer the Night King’s epically awesome death scene. So Bran sits in the Godswood and wargs into a raven, achieving nothing besides emphasising his vulnerability, as if his being crippled wasn’t enough to get this across. The Night King makes his way to his epically awesome date with pointless destiny, but is briefly distracted by a dragon for no reason other than so the audience can see him smirk. The Night King — built up patiently for years as the unfeeling, unrelenting force of pure darkness — smirks because wow, that’s totally bad ass and he’s a bad ass and that was awesome! Turns out he isn’t the unfeeling, unrelenting force of pure darkness after all; he’s just an asshole with superpowers. There goes a little more of the backstory we previously invested in.

Then, after boring fall of Helm’s Deep, which wasn’t at all compelling because until the Night King showed up nothing was at stake, and after boring Jurassic Park kitchen, which wasn’t at all scary because Arya is not a vulnerable child but is in fact a super-ninja, Melisandre tells Arya, “that thing I said to you five seasons ago!”. Arya understands this as code for, “hey, maybe YOU should kill the Night King!” and says, “why didn’t I think of that? That would totally work!

Does anybody remember when actions had consequences? Like when Ned Stark’s part in kidnapping Tyrion leads to him being lanced in the leg, causing him to limp for the short rest of his life and unable to escape his capture and subsequent execution? Or like when Jaime stood up for Brienne and lost his hand, forever ruining his formidable legacy as a swordsman? Does anybody remember when wights were utterly terrifying? Like when Jon Snow and Jeor Mormont just about manage to kill one in Castle Black? Not one thousand, just one. None of these consequences seem to matter much anymore. Jon can be flung from a speeding dragon and get up unscathed to fight a thousand wights side by side with Jaime (a thousand, a million, a bajillion — does it even really matter?)

Does anybody remember when power struggles lasted for two and a half seasons and with everybody shockingly dying and dramatically altering the power dynamic the remaining characters face, all to a beautiful, haunting original soundtrack? This power struggle lasted two and a half hours, nobody important died, and there seem to be no consequences beyond what we all knew was going to happen but had to wait an hour and a half for. Arya sneaks up behind the Night King and stabs him in the chest. And that’s the end of that.

It’s worth lingering for a moment on what exactly that was the end of, to further tease out just how atrocious the writing has become. It was the end of the war between the living and the dead, between embodied, flawed goodness and the ethereal force of evil itself. The war which lasted all of one early morning. The great hundred minutes’ war of whatever year it is in Westeros. Did the writers pause to realise that the physical incarnation of impending apocalypse that has been gaining power since the very first scene of the series amounted to a force that didn’t win a single battle? The Night King was 0 for 1. He went out in the divisional round. For all the foreboding, all the prophecy, and the twisting and turning arcs that led to this point, the audience deserved a conclusion to the great war that was a little less epically awesome, and perhaps made just a smidgeon of narrative sense.

There is an unfortunate trend in modern entertainment to attribute any criticism of tropes approved of by the media elite to moral failings of the critic, rather than maybe, just maybe, artistic failings of the work in question. Amy Schumer pulling this stunt is why Netflix no longer has user reviews. Newsweek wrote thumbing its nose at any obvious misogynists who objected to Arya’s epically awesome triumph. I hate to break it to the virtue signallers at Newsweek, but nobody objected to Arya killing the Night King because she is a woman. They objected because it was insultingly poor writing.

If anything, such a superficial, ill-conceived ending is unworthy of Arya’s character. Tastes will obviously differ, but I think of Arya as one of the most complex and patiently invested in and developed characters in the show. Up to and including her sex scene in the weirdly excellent episode two. While some complained even this was shamelessly catering to fan demand, I saw it as a powerful moment that completes the transition we have witnessed over many years not only from child to adult, but from girl to woman. Simply put, Arya is fantastic; she should absolutely have killed the Night King, but in a way that utilised her hard-won skills in the House of Black and White, and after the Night King had actually proven himself to be formidable, rather than just scary-looking, conceited, and apparently pretty dumb.

And Arya’s journey is just the tip of the iceberg of wasted narrative. It turns out that pretty much nothing Bran ever did matters, unless we actually take seriously this ‘memory of the world’ crap, in which case his entire journey achieved that and that alone. Nor does the spiral symbolism matter, nor the magic of the weirwood, nor the Children of the Forest, nor Melisandre, nor Azor Ahai, nor any of the Wildlings. These things might seem like they matter to this ending until you realise the writers threw as many of them together as haphazardly as possible in a desperate attempt to tick every box: have Beric lead Arya to Melisandre, who can direct her to kill the Night King in the Godswood, in the spot where Bran gave Arya the blade she used, and reminiscent of where the children of the forest created the Night King.

This is the crucial narrative fallacy at play in the sad demise of Game Of Thrones: that it is desirable to tie numerous threads together in an epically awesome climactic payoff does not relieve the writers of the responsibility to have this happen in a way that makes sense. The end does not justify the means. When Arya kills the Night King, it isn’t just the White Walkers that shatter; the narrative backlog of the entire show does too.

One of my favourite scenes in the series not only does justice to Arya’s transition but showcases Game Of Thrones at its artistic best. The final scene of the — which was — sees Arya buy her way onto a trade ship headed for Braavos. At first, the captain treats her as if a confused, pitiful girl. But when Arya shows the coin of Jaqen H’ghar, the captain suddenly acts with respect bordering on fear. Once aboard the ship, Arya starts by staring back at the shores of Westeros and her past, but resolves to move to the bow and look towards her future. All the while the Game Of Thrones theme, usually played with a sense of militaristic dread, is scored to a choir and sounds hopeful. This is television storytelling at its very best. The character development is patient, the dialogue is real, and the music and imagery are employed to aid the narrative.

All this is to say that Game Of Thrones was once great, but has now turned into storytelling pornography. There is the bare minimum of plot and character development that gets us to the action as quickly as possible, but with little regard for coherence. It then plays to the lowest, basest instincts of the audience for maximum immediate storytelling arousal. Incomprehensible and inconsequential violence, plagiarised one liners, countless deus ex machinas to keep every main character alive, actions without consequences, epically awesome climaxes of combinations of backstory that are lazy and contrived in the present, and the best dragons HBO money can buy.

Money is almost certainly the key. With the show increasing in popularity and the opportunity coming to move away from the storyline from the books, HBO sensed the opportunity to max out subscriptions on a show that had spiralled out of its niche to become a pop culture phenomenon. But the newer, broader audience demanded less ambiguity, shorter cycles of character development, and more explosions. They demanded story porn. Game Of Thrones has serious franchise equity on the basis of having previously been brilliant, but now it is being milked because HBO knows we will watch it anyway, and pay for the privilege. It’s still entertaining — like all good porn — but it is completely unbecoming of the artistic brilliance it follows. It’s as if Casablanca ended with actual, sexual porn. Wouldn’t that feel wrong? Just weird and awful and wrong? That’s more or less what has happened to Game Of Thrones. A plumber showed up at Rick’s Café. It doesn’t matter how or why. He just did, okay, now let’s get to the good stuff …

To quote Harvey Dent, you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. But the Night King is not the villain. Game Of Thrones itself is the villain. The Long Summer is over and nobody can bring it back now. Not George R.R. Martin. Not the Lord of Light. Not even Arya.

follow me on Twitter

Image for post
Image for post

📝 Read this story later in .

🎨 Wake up every Sunday morning to the week’s most noteworthy stories in The Arts waiting in your inbox. .

Written by

maybe a squirrel. maybe not.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store