Warning: This post specifically discusses, in detail, episode 3 of season 8 of Game of Thrones, “The Long Night.” Here be spoilers.
Last night HBO completed its fifth season of the hit show, Game of Thrones. This season marked arguably the most controversial of the series as, in addition to its usual highly discussed content, season five marked the largest breakaway from the book series by George R. R. Martin. For most of the season, fans appeared split on the issue. While some (like myself) welcomed the changes that preserved the impending doom and focus of the main plot, others had a different reaction:
Many characters were omitted and most of the plot threads included in the fifth season were truncated versions of their literary counterparts. Yet the show justified this by taking many plot lines beyond where the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, left them. Yet as the old saying goes, “never leave a job halfway done.”
So let’s talk about this season, in particular last night’s finale. Warning: spoilers.
When season five was announced, one notable absence was announced shortly thereafter: Bran Stark. The show’s head writers sited that the character’s ” immediate future didn’t seem to provide as compelling material.” Fair enough, kind of a dig at Martin’s writing (which covers Bran’s training) but okay – lose a lackluster plot to help preserve the pace….
But what about Arya?
For those out there who missed it, let me some up what Arya does for ALL of season five: washes dead people, watches people, gets told she is not ready, sweeps. Sure, she kills someone in the season finale… but this was compelling? This is what Bran Stark needed to be sacrificed for? Watching an Arya scene in season five felt like watching paint dry… while being told it is not ready to dry. The main story ground to a halt and the same dull message was repeated over and over again (sort of like the Red Skull’s scenes in Captain America).
Hypocritical to call one plot boring and the other riveting. For those wondering, Arya is still following the book’s plot (for the most part). That said, why? In making changes to the show’s content – head writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have challenged George R. R. Martin. They know how it ends… and they have reacted by losing characters that Martin called important and making substantial changes to the plot… while still following it.
This is what I mean by don’t leave a job half-done. If Benioff and Weiss have problems with Martin’s work, they are not bound to follow it. Yet they for the most part did, and the end result was a finale final hook that fans of the book have known about for a while… and that the author has already essentially debunked.
It is a cliffhanger, and a cheap one. One that hinges on the audience abandoning all reason to believe it is true. Oh if only there was someone… a witch (who conveniently just rode in) maybe, around who could control life and death. Oh drat, all well, on to the next main character driving the Wall/White Walker plot line… oh there isn’t one? That’s odd.
The point is, this is the hook that A Dance with Dragons ended with, but the show is not in the same place. That epic White Walker attack never happened in the books (or if it did we didn’t read about it) so the threat is still far off. In the show, they seem to be like… a day behind John Snow in reaching the Wall. The tension is ratcheted up already, we didn’t need a PSYCHE moment to end the season.
And we didn’t need cliffhangers… oh god the sheer amount of cliffhangers in that last episode was staggering. Forget adapting and source material, that was bad writing.
Is Stannis really dead? What about Sansa and Theon? What’s going to happen in Dorne? What’s Jaime going to do? What’s going to happen to Aria? What’s going to happen to Daenerys? What’s going to happen with Tyrion? What’s Cersei going to do next? Is John Snow dead? Do we even still care?
There was no content in that season finale that served the current season. It was all hook… with no bait. As anyone who watched Lost will tell you, you can’t just ask questions. When the show was winning me over, it was because it wasn’t waiting. Martin’s last two books have entered a holding pattern on the main plot… and it appears that the show ultimately has done the same. At least this time fans know the wait will be finite, but after so much build up – can we still hope for a satisfying payoff?
The final episode reminded me a lot of the last two books – something big is going to happen… eventually. But for now enjoy more death and nudity, if that still affects anyone watching the show at all.
Reading A Song of Ice and Fire feels like reading five books stretched into seven, and unfortunately for all its big “changes”, watching Game of Thrones is feeling the same way.
Ask anyone who can read or has HBO: George R. R. Martin is an entertaining man. His series, A Song of Ice and Fire (or Game of Thrones as it is known on television) has taken the world by storm and become an element of culture. Few fantasy series ever achieve this level of fame. While there is no single reason why A Song of Ice and Fire has become as popular as it has, the intelligence of author George R. R. Martin plays a large role. More importantly, his knowledge of the genre and his ability to subvert the common themes/archetypes that readers/audiences have come to expect. Let us examine a few of the new spins that make the series memorable (warning: spoilers to follow).
1. Killing Your Main Character in the Opening Act
“Ah!” You cry, “spoilers!”
But holy sh*t, this kind of thing does not happen in fantasy often. What’s more, Eddard Stark is the honorable knight lord. He is a man who lives by a code and strives to do what’s right. In most fantasy series, this would be the character that the audience/reader follows throughout. Witness Ned Stark slay the beasts and watch as good triumphs over evil. George R. R. Martin understood this, he understood that no one reading his book would think that Eddard Stark would die – so he killed him off.
While any weary reader/watcher could suspect that Eddard Stark’s initial plan to stop the Lannister’s would encounter hiccups (it was only the first book in the series after all, he couldn’t solve every problem right then), the idea of killing him was simply foreign. By doing so, George R. R. Martin tossed out the idea of the immortal hero and showed that anyone/everyone in his series would be vulnerable. Instantly, every character became that much more interesting. If Ned Stark could lose his head – anything could happen.
2. Tyrion “the Imp” Lannister
No offense to Peter Dinklage (I love his portrayal of Tyrion in the show – he is a phenomenal actor) but he was not right for the part of Tyrion. Let me rephrase – he needs makeup for the role. Tyrion Lannister is known as the Imp. Not simply for his short stature but for his deformities. Here is an illustration based on how the books describe Tyrion:
He is ugly. A small, malformed creature – and a member of (arguably) the most hated house in the series. Following normal fantasy logic, this guy should be the worst one. A treacherous, sneaky little imp that lurks in the dark and preys on the weak. Yet that is not Tyrion Lannister at all. By far the most likeable member of House Lannister, Tyrion operates with more decency and honor than his two attractive siblings.
I could have used any character really to illustrate how George R. R. Martin subverted the common fantasy notion that beautiful people are always fair in every aspect of their personality but I believe no other character illustrates this better than Tyrion. This is a fantasy series where looks tell the audience/reader nothing about the character… save how they appear.
3. Weddings and Battles
In most fantasy series when main characters do die, it is on the battlefield. In the midst of war they are slain: pierced by a sword in single combat usually. As fair as deaths go, it is a very romantic image. Weddings by contrast usually mark the place of resolution/happily ever afters. The war is over and the danger is passed, time to celebrate with a light affair and end the book.
When is the last time a main character was killed in a battlefield in A Song of Ice and Fire? No, nothing kills main characters like getting married in a George R. R. Martin series. While some might say this is a manifestation of personal issues (Martin’s first marriage ended in divorce), I like to think it is more of the brilliant subversion that is found throughout the series. As mentioned before with Tyrion Lannister: appearances are not everything.
4. Female Characters who Actually do Sh*t
Martin can be hailed for creating a series where women are at the center of the action. While this, hopefully, will be the norm for every fantasy series to come: the change has to start somewhere. I am in no way crediting Martin for being the first (there are plenty, including Tolkien, who have incorporated women into an active role). Famous works are an inspiration and this will do far more for advancing female characters in fantasy than a dozen obscure series that are only read by a few.
A Song of Ice and Fire has two books left before completion and the main conflict appears set (White Walkers (Ice) vs. Dragons (Fire)). It has been a long time since George R. R. Martin began his series (the first three books were published within four years, the last two have took eleven) and some (myself included) are starting to doubt whether the quality will be maintained. Ending a series is one of the hardest challenges in writing. There are many characters and audiences/readers will be wanting a satisfying resolution for all of them.
Yet George R. R. Martin has surprised us, time and time again. It is one of the main reasons that we keep reading/watching. The beginning was unorthodox, the middle was turbulent… who is to say that the epic fantasy ending that we are all starting to expect is even coming. This has not been a series to play by the rules. That is why we love it so much.