Game of Thrones didn’t jump the shark last night. However, it transmogrified, a bit like Bran altering his form, into fan fiction. Like Jaime the Kingslayer, that’s both good and bad. SPOILERS
I only write about Game of Thrones once a year; this is it. However, like you, I read those who write about it a lot more often. Not so much on the Lannister corporate friendly sites like Vulture and Slate, but snarkier tumblrs like this and this. In case you hadn’t heard, there are people who hate-watch GoT like it’s Real Housewives. And no, they’re not merely nitpicking tiny little details, like, say, why didn’t Rickon zig and zag while he was outrunning arrows last night? No, it’s more important things, like the claim that nothing the main characters do is properly motivated. A common refrain is “Why would ___ [fill in blank with Jon, Dany, Cersei, Tyrion, Davos, whoever] do that when s/he knows better and s/he was trying to do the exact opposite thing last season?”
I wouldn’t go as far as the hate-watchers. The show is still better than most of what’s on TV. Having said that, it has lost a lot of its edge, and feels fan-fictionier than ever.
I studied fanfiction.net for a chapter I wrote for the first collection of essays about Gilmore Girls. One thing I learned is that on occasion, fan fiction can surpass the original works. Many people assume that fan fiction is only as good as “Fifty Shades of Grey” because that’s the one they’ve heard of (the book began life as fan fiction for the “Twilight” books); but some fan fiction is goddamn brilliant. That said, as a general rule, fan fiction tends to be less carefully structured and less narratively complex than the sources. Not having editors will have that effect. As a tendency, fan fiction gives us our favorite characters doing what we always wanted, without those characters making hard trade-offs, as we’d seen in the original source material.
It’s not as simple as saying, as some do, “the show is now worse than the books” or “the show has gone off the rails because it can’t rely on the books anymore.” The last time I wrote about GoT, I used many thousands of words to defend the show moving away from George R.R. Martin’s improveable works. I loved the first, second, and third books of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. But I felt that after audaciously killing Robb, Catelyn, Joffrey, and Tywin in book three, Martin became uncharacteristically and unnecessarily protective in his fourth and fifth books. When deaths of major characters did come, they were fake deaths, like those of The Hound, Brienne, and Jon Snow. You don’t have to kill characters to make great medieval drama, but boy, it helps.
The show knows this, which is why a dialogue-speaking character has died in every episode of this season. However, the show, somewhat like the books, seems to have decided that there’s now a core group of characters that we, the audience, can’t live without. Even as Jon and Arya and Dany and Tyrion and Cersei and Jamie and Sansa and Bran and Brienne and Davos and Sam and Littlefinger face death and worse, we think: well, big deal, it’s not like one of them is going to die or anything. In its presumption of our attachment to these core heroes/anti-heroes, the show is starting to resemble something from Marvel Studios. Despite the book constrictures, Game of Thrones was a lot less predictable two years ago.
But it’s not just the absence of life-or-death stakes for our favorites. Some things are taking far, far too long, like Arya’s worst-internship-ever and Davos learning that Melisandre (basically) killed Shireen and Loras’s & Cersei’s trials-by-combat-or-whatever. Other things are more why-did-they-bother?, like the stories of Dorne and Sam/Gilly barely being enough for one episode’s C-plot, or some of the banter between B-characters. (More Dario and Jorah, anyone? More Bronn and Pod? I didn’t think so.) But most worrisome, and most fan-fiction-ish, are the times when our lead characters achieve goals without having to give up, well, anything.
Everyone and their direwolf knew that Jon Snow would come back from the dead this season. What dismayed me was that his resurrection was probably done in the least interesting way possible. Involvement of warging and/or Bran might have been something, but if the show wanted Melisandre to save him, what if she’d had to kill someone else to do it? (Or add/subtract 100 years from her life?) Then last night’s chat, where Mel got Jon’s DNR order, might have actually signified a trade-off. Like good fiction, unlike most fan fiction.
Another big moment this season was where Dany somewhat literally turned the tables on the ruling Dothraki, burned them down, and emerged “unburnt” from their council house only to have the rest of the Dothraki kneel and proclaim her queen. But is our Khalessi really immune to fire? That’s not established in the books or on the show. The fiery triple dragon birth was much more of a trade-off – dead husband, dead fetus, destroyed khalasar, desperate Dany. This time around, it’s more like “hey guys I can’t be burnt and you should now all worship me.” This is fan fiction without friction; better stories have more friction.
I believe the term “fan servicing” gets abused – shouldn’t all entertainment be servicing us at all times? That said, last night’s episode was a big sloppy wet kiss to fans without much in the way of making the characters earn it (like they did in last year’s Hardhome episode). For example, in the nick of time, Dany demonstrated the sudden ability to control her three dragons the way my son controls his stuffed animals. Sure, one could argue that Dany and Drogon, her largest and (until this season) most independent-thinking dragon, have been mind-melding off-camera. The show did slightly signpost this before last night, when the Khaleesi gave her Patton speech to the Dothraki on top of Drogon’s head. (I liked one woman who commented that after seeing Dany ride that scaley head, she’ll never again complain about her bicycle seat.) And if one wanted to continue to be charitable, one might say that Drogon is the alpha-dragon and that’s why the other two dragons fell in line with him. But that still doesn’t explain why those two happened to pop out of the pyramid during the exact minute Dany launched her counter-attack. And did we see even one archer fire an arrow at any of them? (Yes, I know, no one wants to be a target, but they’re going to be BBQ anyway.) The wrath of Daenerys and her three dragons came a little too…fan fictiony.
One might have thought (and the “previously on” set us up to think) that Dany, returning from her Dothraki kidnapping to a Meereen under siege, might have told Tyrion something like “you had one job!” Instead, Tyrion spun the siege as a win, and she said “good.” Really? Next thing you know, Tyrion was Dany’s only present advisor in a meeting with Ironborn Yara and Theon. As though the show hasn’t been criticized enough for white privilege. (Yes, I know; Grey Worm and Missandei wouldn’t know Westerosi people as well as Tyrion.) Tyrion pivoted on a dime from purgatory-drinking to victory-lapping, crowing to Theon about dwarf jokes and how much worse Theon’s last few years have been. (Good thing for Tyrion Theon didn’t arrive a week earlier!) And before Dany shook her fellow patriarchy-destroyer’s hand, she checked with Tyrion like he’s Dick Cheney. Really? I realize the show may be setting up something interesting with Tyrion being Dany’s last check before total despotism. But right now, it’s getting to the point where we’re supposed to root for Dany simply because she’s female, as though the show is commenting on Hillary Clinton. Wait a minute, that actually could be good…
Maybe I’m not supposed to say that Jon’s victory over Ramsay came easily, because he did lose his brother, a true Stark heir. (From a narrative perspective, his death is a net positive for Jon and Sansa; if he’d lived he’d now be running Winterfell; without him, the bastard and the princess will keep uneasy control of it.) But the battle never reflected the awkward compromises between Northern houses and one, wildlings and two, the Boltons. Jon had mentioned that Bolton’s troops might lose faith in their leader, and Ramsey did indeed fire arrows indiscriminately into the fray (shown in contrast to Davos’ archers, who held back), but it was never clear that Team Bolton self-fractured. Things even came more easily to Ramsey than they should have; we’ve never established that he’s an expert archer (you know, that his arrow could strike a Stark more fatally from 500 yards than Ygritte’s three arrows could do from 50 feet); if Ramsey had asked some expert archer to kill Rickon, we could have had the same plot results, far more realistically. Would Jon really have been stupid enough to take Ramsey’s Rickon-killing bait, and lose the position he’d had to explain to Tormund? And having done that, would his army really have had a damn snowball’s chance in hell?
The battle was clever filmmaking, particularly the oddball minute of Jon being buried under bodies. I loved the breathtaking long shots of Jon in battle, but even this was marred by Jon reacting to another flurry of arrows as though it were a nest of gnats; it was almost as though Kit Harington, like us, realized the notion of Jon getting mortally hit by an arrow is absurd. Unlike many of today’s recappers, I for one didn’t mind Sansa not telling Jon that the Knights of the Vale might or might not have been coming; she may not have heard back, and Littlefinger may have intentionally held his army until both Northern armies were weak enough that he was unlikely to lose a horse-riding soldier. If anything, I would have liked more parties involved, like Brienne or Ghost (Jon’s direwolf) or Bran or even a few White Walkers. Three or four well-placed death-zombies might have made a stronger point – lost in the ground’s clearly melted snow – that winter really is coming and Jon’s army was very motivated to fight to the death to get inside Winterfell. One would think we’ll get more White Walkers very shortly, considering the show just lost its other personification of evil.
While I’m here, what I loved about Season 6, briefly: the stage play about Westeros (though it unfortunately reminded us how good the show WAS), Jaime’s return to being interesting (Dorne: ugh), Hodor’s time-travely fate, Sparrow-Margery scenes, Diana Rigg, the Hound, and some of the Bran-vision flashbacks. And Tyrion drinking with Grey Worm and Missandei. I’m kidding, that actually reminded me of high school bully drinkers trying to get teetotalers to drink. Awkward.
At its best, Game of Thrones is about underestimated misfits, about castoffs becoming great, kind of a “the loser now will be later to win” thing. That’s why, last night, Grey Worm killed the two people who weren’t the “lowborn” one. (In this context, it’s more than ironic that the first three names in the regular credits are Lannisters.) Dany started out as this type of underdog, although this is getting harder to remember. Five years after that sword cut through Ned Stark’s neck like a hot knife through butter, it’s getting harder to remember when we thought any other character could be next. These days, our favorite former underdogs cut through plot problems like a hot knife through butter. There’s still hope for the show, but only if it gives less hope to the leads. Starting immediately, the writers need to act less like they’re writing gooey fan fiction. I’m not saying the recent books were better, but for the first time I feel like George R.R. Martin’s sixth book, whenever it comes out, could actually surpass its screen version.