Game of Thrones, both the novels and the TV show, has always been about subversion. It’s always been about withholding an audience’s desire for neatness. It has almost felt like a mission statement, of sorts. The character arcs and story beats have rarely ever been conventionally satisfying. It is what has made the series special, in my opinion. It has been unpredictable in ways that are only satisfying in hindsight, as it forces us to recontextualize our desire for satisfying conclusions and our need for character comeuppance with the series rule set and value system. It always seemed to be consistent in this regard. Well, until season six, in my opinion.
A few months ago, the showrunners revealed that Game of Thrones would only have 13 more episodes after the season 6 finale. Instead of one supersized season, the remaining episodes would be split up into two smaller seasons. It signaled the beginning of the end for the show, as it would begin to march towards a conclusion, one that would be on it’s own terms, as the show has now narratively gone past what was available in the books.They’ll no longer be able to live in the world of adaptation, and will be forced to really test their creative metal. Will their need to put the pieces into place, to get the characters where they need to be for the final confrontations, create narrative laziness? Because if you know the major story beats there’s a danger that you’ll want to rush through the minutia to get to the delicious “good stuff.”
In my opinion, season 6 has largely been this, mixed with fan wish fulfillment. The show has never, up to this point, been so neat and predictable. Suddenly everything started becoming righteous and “fair,” in a weird way, which feels counter to everything that had come before.The show’s most hated characters have been slowly losing their nuance and have delved into villainous caricatures. They are no longer worthy of our empathy, and have become less interesting as a consequence. We’ve always wanted certain characters to “get what’s coming to them,” but the show was usually able to subvert those desires a bit, and even when it would eventually give in – Joffrey comes to mind – it was never satisfying in a conventional way.
Imagine if season 4 was more like season 6, in the way that it treated character dynamics and it’s notions of “justice.” If that was the case then the responsibility for the events of The Purple Wedding would have laid in the hands of a Stark, instead of what we got: A complex and nuanced series of events, that utilizes the dynamics and relationships that had been put into play. The ramifications of which are still echoing in the series to this day, or they could, would probably be more apt.
As an audience we have a desire for direct consequence. The villain wrongs the hero, the hero get’s their revenge on the villain. In essence, we want simplicity. We want predictability, because it’s what is most immediately comforting. Going back to The Purple Wedding, as I think it is the easiest salient point to make, cosmic justice was served, and it gave us all something to revel in. But instead of neatly closing a door, it opened many more. It was a resolution, just not the one that, on a guttural level, we wanted.
Say it was a Stark, Sansa most likely. Say she was directly involved. Would it have ultimately mattered? Probably not, honestly. Her story could have continued on pretty much the way it did. She would still end up being accused, she still would have had to make an escape, her current journey uninterrupted. By making the Tyrell’s the harbingers of Joffrey’s doom, they use what they have, and add a layer of unpredictability to the aftermath. The Tyrell’s were positioned as “schemers,” so they schemed, and we’re left to wonder how they’ll scheme again while trying to ultimately usurp the throne. It allowed the machinations to, well, machinate, and left things messy and uncertain. Drama with purpose, not cheap satisfaction.
The show was never about closing loops, it was about tying knots for other characters to pick at. The only loops that were closed, that made sense to me, were the small ones based on relationship drama. For instance, when Tyrion kills his father, Tywin. Yes, it was direct and immediately satisfying, but nothing was betrayed and, in the show’s best tradition, things were left messy.
Now, it would seem, the creators need to simplify the world, make it smaller, so that they can streamline what remains of the story. It’s an inevitability, to be fair. At some point you just have to get on with it, and start wrapping things up. The thing that I was taken aback by, the thing that I never expected, was the amount of contrivance and narrative dissonance. It often felt like the show was breaking it’s own rules by serving up easy answers and offering neat conclusions to several story threads.
Throughout season 6, at the end of every episode, I was left with the nagging sensation that something was off. None of the big moments sat well with me. It started feeling like fan-fiction, which makes sense considering the fact that they are now off book, and ultimately that’s all it ever could really hope to be but, having said that, it doesn’t mean it has to be bad.
The first whiff of world shrinking contrivance, came by way of Hodor’s sacrifice. Although, under the circumstances, the word “sacrifice” isn’t exactly appropriate. Not after it’s revealed that Bran had psychically fucked him by accident, and his entire existence was about nothing more than the moment of his death. So much so that the only word he could speak was a jumbled/shortened version of the phrase “Hold the door.” Tragic or contrived? It robbed him of his status as a good, loyal man, that was bound by honor to protect Bran at all costs. What made him even more endearing was that he was a simpleton, and was a great example of the world’s simplicity. It’s only “smart” men and women that fuck it all up.
Instead of a character reacting to circumstance and doing what he had to do, his death became his destiny, his singular purpose. And with destiny rode in contrivance, and the sprawling world began to shrink. For me, it was too neat, too simple. In that moment Hodor had his character taken from him, and he became a narrative tool that had outlived it’s purpose.
It was a weird moment for me. On the right side of the couch, my wife was openly weeping, a small puddle of tears forming on her lap. On the left side of the couch, there I sat, with a look of constipation. It was the first time I felt like the show was at conflict with itself.
Another instance that didn’t jive with me was the demise of Ramsey Bolton, the character everybody loved to hate. Yeah, he had to go, but the way they went about it felt… silly, I guess. “He would starve his dogs and feed them people! I know! That’s how he should die!” Seriously, that sounds like it came straight off a reddit message board. It gave the audience what it would probably want if they were to be asked. And in that, they betray themselves again. The show once dealt in clever subversion, and now is paying it’s narrative bills with wish-fulfillment. It was too perfect, too satisfyingly ironic, too neat and clean. Again, a loop closed, by turning an admittedly shallow character into a narrative device.
I mean, it’s conclusion doesn’t even feign complexity and is of little real consequence beyond giving the audience satisfaction. Like I said, he had to die, but the circumstances surrounding it seemed a little over the top. It felt like I was watching something written by Joss Whedon, which is to say inappropriate for what had come before: Nuanced story telling. Withholding immediate satisfaction, and giving us something to, I don’t know, think about. It was the series bread and butter until this past season. I know that sounds harsh, but it just feels at odds with the way the series had been built.
There’s a few other things that bugged me this season. Daenerys talking about how much she cares for the people of Mereen, but for some reason waiting a day, while flaming balls were being catapulted into the city, to confront the slavers so that she could make a point. Yeah… It was just another moment of audience wish-fulfillment, and allowed the story to continue forward without any messiness, allowing Daenerys to travel to Westeros guilt free. It allows her to maintain the delusion that she’s a benevolent conqueror, and doesn’t have to make any difficult decisions. It keeps her out of the grey area, as no sacrifice for her ambition really had to be made. No, leaving behind her underdeveloped romantic interest, that they never did anything with, doesn’t count. Yet another loop closed. Too clean, too neat.
Arya Stark now has the power of the Many Faced God, but has to suffer none of the burden of the belief, and gets to kill Walder Frey for reasons. Tyrion is now a real Hand to the King/Queen, because for some reason Daenerys is all about his intellectual prowess now. Melisandre gets “sent away.” The Hound isn’t dead after all, because the show has started to operate under the comic book rule of “We never saw him actually die.” Uncle Benjen comes back to be tragic, and then takes off. The Greyjoys make it to Daenerys really quickly and without incident. Varys has gained the powers of teleportation, all in service of neatly moving pieces into place. Plot convenience was everywhere… The list goes on, really, but there is one more bugaboo I have with this season…
They literally blow it all up. All of the interesting threads in play in Westeros get wiped clean with one, anti-climactic event. The scheming Tyrell’s, the High Sparrow and his brood, the conflicted family dynamics, the tests of faith and loyalty. Everything that has been built for the past 3 seasons, everything that was dramatically interesting, went up in green flames, as Cersie watched and ascended into Bond-villain levels of absurdity. Seriously, she even kind of gives a Bond-villain esque speech to the nun before Oddjob… I mean, The Mountain comes in to torture her. It’s the heighth of narrative convenience and, in my opinion, some seriously lazy writing.
All of this is done to put Cersie on the iron throne, and make her an analog for The Mad King. I have no problem with that, it’s what they’ve been foreshadowing for years, as she constantly justified her lifestyle by invoking the Targaryen name. The problem is that this happens without any real strife.
Yes, Tommen jumped out of a window because after, what, a couple of weeks under the High Sparrow’s influence he was in such a state that he could no longer go on. The absurdity of this is compounded by the fact that he never came off as the sharpest tool in the shed, so why exactly was this a road too far? But besides that, his character and his motivations never mattered beyond being a tool to send Cersie over the edge, I guess. You could say that about pretty much all the characters that go up in green flames.
She’s spent the entire season trying to think of a way to get out of her current trouble, and not really growing in any direction. Cersie’s always been “evil,” but never without our empathy. There were reasons she was the way she was, so I was really disappointed that they shortcutted her to her “final form.” I guess they really need Daenerys to have a clearly righteous cause. Wouldn’t want the next bits of the story to be, you know, messy. It’s all too clean and too neat.
A WHOLE FUCK-TON OF LOOPS CLOSED AND DOORS SLAMMED SHUT.
It’s almost as if now that they are no longer bound by the books, there’s all these story threads that Martin started that they either don’t know what to do with, or never cared for too much in the first place. Like I said, I understand that some of this stuff is probably necessary. Things do need to be setup for some type of ending, but I can’t shake my disappointment, and I’m kind of afraid that now that the bar has been considerably lowered from a narrative stand point, that the story is just going to sink into predictability. The world is becoming so small that it makes me feel claustrophobic.
To be fair, though, maybe I just can’t see the forest for the trees. Maybe they’re subverting the fact that they usually subvert. Maybe they want to end it in a more conventional fantasy style way. The good guys are good, the bad guys are really bad, and maybe they’ll serve us up a finale that requires little to no surprises. Maybe that’s the subversion. I really hope not…
I know that I’m an outlier here. People seem to have really enjoyed season 6. I totally disagree but, even having said that, I still hold out some small hope that it’ll be worth it. I’d go so far as to say that I’m cautiously optimistic. A ringing endorsement, I know. I may be being overly critical, or maybe even just plain old wrong. I can accept that, but I really don’t think I’m wrong. Sure, maybe I didn’t explain myself very well, but I think you can at the very least see where I’m coming from.
Hell, maybe it’s just me.