Game Over

Fayes T Kantawala on the shift in how the TV series explored George R. R. Martin’s fantasy universe

Game Over
Game of Thrones is the biggest thing to happen to television in a generation: a fact you probably suspected even if you weren’t one of the 20 million people who tuned into the final episode this past weekend.

For eight years the show has inhabited the Venn diagram where fantasy nerds, political junkies, sex scene aficionados, violence voyeurs, incest enthusiasts and medieval imagery scholars mixed and mingled. The HBO series was based on G. R. R. Martin’s series of books – in my opinion one of the few times that the video adaptation far outshone the source material. The books make it obvious that Martin is a screen writer rather than a novelist, something you can tell after you’re forced to endure yet another description of a feast in yet another drafty castle. One gets the sense that he began writing the books as homages to the kinds of scripts that he wanted to have made but couldn’t get funded.

But the amazing fact of both books and series is the commitment to world events above individual stories. From the first season the show distinguished itself by being able to kill off main characters with little more fanfare than real life would provide. Their deaths come unexpectedly in part because we are so used to movies and TV shows protecting our characters. But not in Westeros, a continent so violent that I’ve known some people who stopped watching after season 2; others drew the line at the rapes and willful sexual assaults of seasons 3 and 4. Then GoT became woke and violence became more magical, and I kept going right up to the last episode, mainly out of a perverse obsession with Cersei Lannister.
It’s not simply the narrative speeding up, or even the plot holes. Its about the fact that this season the show’s tone abruptly shifted to tell personal stories at the expense of sociological ones

Now that it’s ended, I find myself considering why the show drew me in for all the years. If you’ve been awake this week you’ll have read somewhere that people are not happy with the way the show runners decided to end the series. They are not wrong. The last season nosedived into the predictable tropes and convenient plot twists that Game of Thrones skillfully avoided for all these years. The reasons are a bit deeper than simple criticisms like the new writers, or plot holes, or a disturbing commitment to make sure the main characters stay alive until a beautifully coordinated death scene can be orchestrated. For the bulk of its existence the series was devoted to a kind of institutionalized storytelling rather than a character based one. We were interested in the characters, yes, but since no one was safe, it became the world and its deeply articulated institutions (government, diplomacy, warfare, economy, culture) that became the overarching narrative.

Part of the reason may be that for the last two seasons the TV show had sailed into uncharted waters beyond the books. And although I’m sure the writers stuck to the plot points that they were given, what actually changed was the perspective of the show’s storytelling: from a sociological overview of a land to a Hollywood-style exploration of the characters’ psychology.

The show inspired cuisine, fashion and so much more

It’s a major shift – one that changes the tone of any kind of storytelling, but particularly one that took pains to exploit the apathy that reality has for human feeling. To achieve this shift the show sped up events in single episodes that took years to set up, while glossing over massive plot holes for the sake of speed. Why, for example, do the dragons begin dropping like flies this season when for years we’ve been lectured on how mystically indestructible they are? How in the last season do characters suddenly meet in unlikely locations for the sake of a good monologue? Why is it that the ongoing refrain of “Winter Is Coming” turned out to be a threat that the whole cast deals with in a (lengthy but gory) single episode? Why do characters who we have seen develop slowly and intelligently, suddenly and for no apparent reason, give in to spontaneous and unpredictable bouts of madness? How, in short, does the world of Game of Thrones suddenly begin to not matter in the last season?

It’s not simply the narrative speeding up, or even the plot holes. It’s about the fact that this season the show’s tone abruptly shifted to tell personal stories at the expense of sociological ones. At the end I’m not left with the feeling that there was any intention to tell a larger story rather than wrapping up storylines. What drew everyone into the show all those years ago was the fact that it didn’t care about what you wanted to happen to its characters.

Consider: When we are wronged by someone, we tend to villainize them as evil. In contract when we wrong someone ourselves, we tend to rationalize our actions through the context of how we were feeling or what we were going through at the time. It’s a natural human response, and one that the show played with expertly for years. Victories were never simple, defeats never painless. They killed off major characters early and kept doing so often, so that the one thing you were sure of was that the world was an unsure place, and that we were both – characters and audience – facing it together.

Changing that simple but indelible perspective changed the show from whatever it was to the Hollywood mess it became at the end.

Some have pointed out that given its popularity there would be detractors no matter how it ended. To be fair, I don’t hate the ending at all. I’m just sad that the ending, which even as it stands could have been riveting and meaningful, was handled so clumsily by a show that has been anything but for a decade.

Write to