Is Game of Thrones actually any good?
At the risk of sounding like a crank, I’m seriously posing the question in the title of this post: is Game of Thrones / A Song of Ice and Fire actually any good? Obviously, events this season turned me against the show. I stopped watching after Episode 6. The rape of Sansa confirmed to me that the showrunners were bent on torturing their viewers and I just don’t like that kind of entertainment (see my extended griefing here).
So there is the distinct possibility that I’m just grumpy that I invested so much of my time in the show and books that I’d like to turn others against the show. That seems really grumpy. I have written before about how I don’t feel fandom the way I see it in others. I’m always sort of disconnected from it. When I got into the books and the show, I was hooked in by the game of memory I was constantly playing with names, histories, places, and events. But I don’t know that I was that much of a hardcore “fan.” My point being: I hope I’m not trying to turn people against it but instead figure out my own feelings about it.
Over the weekend, I read Adi Robertson’s article in Verge, “Game of Thrones became its own worst enemy and I need to let it go,” and agreed with most of it. Almost every reader I know points out that the most appealing aspect of the books (and the show) was (as Robertson says):
As cliche as it sounds now, A Game of Thrones [the first novel] was high fantasy that expertly subverted the ideals and aesthetics of high fantasy, a genre that had driven me away with too much florid prose and Tolkien imitation.
When the books were recommended to me, I protested by saying I hadn’t enjoyed much fantasy writing recently. I was told, this is different. It was. And though I couldn’t identify at the time, Robertson nails my biggest problem with fantasy in general:
One of my least favorite high fantasy conventions is what would charitably be known as the genre’s epic scale. I don’t like knowing everything about a place, or everything that happens to a person. It makes it too easy for plots and characters to become vehicles for world-building, instead of compelling things in their own right. A Game of Thrones reinvented the overused mythos of medieval-tinged fantasy, but after enough time, the extensive family trees and the fight for the Iron Throne became constraints in their own right. When new characters showed up to replace the old ones, they ended up fitting awkwardly into stories that had been built around someone else.
Agreed. I also hate the fantasy cliche that characters are on such an epic quest that they have to walk somewhere for a long time. Most characters spend most of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire going somewhere, often by foot and always at length. They arrive somewhere, something goes horribly wrong, and they’re back on the road. Look at Arya, Brienne, Stannis, Tyrion, Danaerys…I could name almost every character.
In the “epic” sense, GRRM falls right into those genre cliches. And the worst part is that while the show brought tons of fans to the books because it was originally fantasy as we’d never seen it, it’ll probably scare more people off fantasy fiction because of its epic (and directionless) reach. I certainly won’t pick up another fantasy series that goes into such detail about peripheral characters and events.
So are the show and books actually good?
Robertson points out that the tipping point for her might have been Joffrey’s death:
In a standalone story, it would have been shocking and satisfying. But all I could think about was the fact that I wasn’t even halfway through the series, and one of its biggest personalities was gone.
That phrase “standalone story” blew my mind wide open when I read it. Why isn’t ASOIAF only the story of winter coming to Westeros? All the other characters, histories, and detours would work great as standalone stories, divorced from the main narrative. Though books 2 and 3 are epic enough, books 4 and 5 are almost nothing but side quests. ALL OF DANAERYS’s story is a side quest.
And once I ponder that, I think it’s perfect proof that the show falls into the same traps as the books. Why isn’t GOT about the epic showdown of winter versus dragons? Why the pointless side quests to Dorne and the Eyrie? Why even follow Sansa? What would our reaction have been if Sansa disappeared after the Purple Wedding and suddenly one day we saw her married to Ramsay? “Wait? What the hell? How did that happen?”
The story that went around when the show started was that GRRM had been approached by many people through the years wanting to make a movie of the books but he wouldn’t allow it. He thought the series approach would be better. But imagine these 3 movies that I’ve been imagining:
Game of Thrones: the first movie takes place completely in Westeros. It introduces the politics of the place and the screwed up priorities of the rulers vis a vis their collective nonchalance about Winter coming. Ned dies in the middle. All the kings in the land fight it out until… It ends with the Battle of Blackwater Bay.
Storm of Swords: the second movie opens with Danaerys wedding Drogo who dies almost immediately. The movie is a non-stop series of battles between the North and the South. The Red Wedding happens in the middle. Jaime and Brienne travel through the war-ravaged countryside. Joffrey is killed. It ends with Tyrion killing Tywin.
Dance With Dragons: the third movie tells the story of the Night’s Watch; Jon dies in the middle; and then we see whatever happens when Dany brings those dragons over.
Cut out all the side quests: no visit to Dorne, no failed rescue attempt of Theon by Yara, no Sansa story at all after Joffrey dies, Arya disappears after Ned’s death and reappears at the end (no Brotherhood without Banners / Yoren / Hound journey), no Catelyn arresting Tyrion, no Eyrie quests ever, no Tyrell plot at all, no town to town slave-freeing by Dany (just a condensed story of Qarth and Mereen), no Renley, no Lancel, no Loras.
That would be amazing. This is me fanboying again. I may just try to edit these three movies together.
These movies don’t exist because the show has relied on the books and modeled itself after them. And that’s a problem because, well…the books aren’t tightly-wound narratives themselves.
I think all readers feel that GRRM is just in love with the “epicness” of his own universe. He keeps dragging these books out because he doesn’t want it to end.
Robertson described her own journey as what I imagine GRRM’s to be:
After a while, I realized that I was more invested in A Song of Ice and Fire‘s lore than in the actual books. I continued because I needed to know what happened, but I didn’t really enjoy finding out. Following A Feast for Crows was a chore. I read Wikipedia instead of A Dance with Dragons. I stuck with the TV series for a while longer, but the same tipping point happened somewhere around the third season: for every moment I genuinely enjoyed, there was another that I only watched to check how it compared to the books.
And then she nails mine: “George R.R. Martin has managed to do what Tolkien never did: turn me into a desperate lore-hound for a world I’m fundamentally tired of visiting.”
That, I think, is what has driven whatever friction there is between readers and viewers. It’s not that I’m necessarily so precious about the events of ASOIAF. It’s that the lore has overtaken the story as the important feature and to have THE LORE contradicted in the show is disturbing.
The best description I’ve read of the mess of the books came from FILM CRIT HULK–you know, the Hulk who reviews literature and film. He began his review of the 5th book, A Dance With Dragons, this way:
THE OLD ADAGE ABOUT IRISH PLAYS IS THAT THEY COULD END AT ANY POINT IN THE STORY AND IT WOULDN’T MAKE A DIFFERENCE.
WE OFFICIALLY HAVE THE IRISH PLAYS OF FANTASY LITERATURE.
(Sidebar: It’s hard to pick a favorite phrase in FILM CRIT HULK’s review but I really like this one: “BEST OF ALL, WHEN DANY’S RULE STARTS TO BLOW UP IN ALL SORTS OF DRAGON-Y GOODNESS, SER BARRISTAN WHIPS OUT HIS HUGE GONADS AND STARTS TAKING CARE OF SHIT. IT GREAT.”)
FILM CRIT HULK opens with great reviews of the cool stuff that goes on in the book but then destroys the entire thing by laying out the problems that he believes make ASOIAF a “zero-sum game.” Hulk’s main beef is that Martin loses narrative steam every time he dives into one of those detailed side quests.
MARTIN KEEPS ARRANGING ELEMENTS WHERE WE GO “COOL! NOW THIS SET UP NARRATIVE TO ALL CLASH TOGETHER AND CREATE INTERESTING CONFLICTS.” BUT NO. THAT NOT HAPPEN. THINGS NEVER LINE UP. OUR CHARACTERS NEVER GET TO FACE THE CONFLICTS THEY SEEK. THINGS FIZZLE OUT. SOMETHING COMPLETELY RANDOM COMES IN THE WAY. AND AS RESULT ALL DRAMATIC TENSION RELEASED.
He completely nails this example when he explains Danaerys:
KNOW WHY EVERYONE LIKE DANY SO MUCH? BECAUSE SHE A CHARACTER WITH A JOURNEY AND ARC. THAT PRETTY MUCH IT. ALMOST EVERY OTHER CHARACTER BASICALLY BEEN SLOGGING THROUGH NONSENSE FROM THE START OF THE SECOND BOOK, WITH NO REAL SENSE OF ENDING AND BEGINNING, NO PUNCTUATION MARKS… IT THE IRISH PLAYS OF FANTASY.
Boom. That’s exactly the problem. Hulk even gives a point-by-point suggestion to fix this:
1) STOP RESOLVING NARRATIVES SO LATE THAT NO ONE GIVES A FUCK…
FOR INSTANCE, IN THE LAST HALF OF DRAGONS, MARTIN SUDDENLY START OFFERING UP ALL THE PSEUDO-CONCLUSIONS TO THE STORIES LAID OUT IN CROWS. WHICH, YOU KNOW, COMPLETELY ROBS THEM OF ANY NARRATIVE WEIGHT SINCE THEY ARRIVE AFTER THE SENSE OF TENSION BEEN LIFTED OUT OF THEIR STORIES…
AND GOOD GOD, THEON. THE REINTRODUCTION TO THEON ACTUALLY STARTLING AND RATHER WELL-DONE, BUT DUE TO THE LENGTH WHICH HE BEEN GONE IT END UP PUTTING READER IN REALLY WEIRD EMOTIONAL PLACE. THE SHIT WITH WINTERFELL FEEL LIKE HAPPENED SO LONG AGO THAT THERE NO LONGER ANY CONFLICTED RESENTMENT. YOU JUST BASICALLY FEEL AWFUL FOR HIM. HIS TURN-CLOAKING ON OUR BELOVED CHARACTERS HAPPENED SO LONG AGO THAT WHO GIVES FUCK? AND LOOK, HULK TOTALLY UNDERSTAND THAT WE SUPPOSED TO FEEL AWFUL FOR HIM BECAUSE HE BEEN THROUGH HELL WITH RAMSEY, BUT DRAMATICALLY-SPEAKING WE SHOULD BE COMING AROUND ON HIM. INSTEAD, IT BEEN SO LONG THAT WE JUST INSTANTLY FEEL BAD FOR HIM RIGHT FROM THE START. IT COMPLETELY WRONG TONE. A TOTAL MISFIRE.
These are perfect examples of the problem that I would just chalk up to “epicly long fantasy novels” but in actuality, they are very specific problems to this particular “Irish plays of fantasy novels.” Martin doesn’t crank up the tension and then release it. He cranks it up and then forgets about it for 700 pages or so. Hulk is right, by the time these stories get to the next stage, the readers just DGAF about them. It’s just lore, not story. Lore isn’t supposed to go anywhere. Narrative is.
And that’s the biggest problem because from the opening chapter of the first book, this series has shown that it is going somewhere: Winter is coming. Shit is getting real.
To its credit, the show does a much better, if somehow more frustrating, job of cranking up tension and then delivering the payoff (even if we hate it). But the show and the books fall right into Hulk’s second suggestion for improvement:
2) STOP TRYING TO DEFY EXPECTATIONS ALL THE TIME
No kidding. Here is Hulk’s explanation:
HULK GET WHY YOU TRYING TO DEFYING EXPECTATIONS ALL THE TIME. DOING SO GAVE YOU THE SIGNATURE MOMENT OF THE SERIES (NED’S MOMENT AT BAELOR), BUT YOUR INCESSANT NEED TO KEEP DOING IT WITH EVERYTHING SINGLE PLOT TOTALLY RUINING THE SERIES. KNOW WHAT MAKES DEFYING EXPECTATIONS SO GOOD? THAT IT UNEXPECTED. SO WHEN IT HAPPEN IN EVERY PLOT-LINE IT THEN BECOME, YOU KNOW,EXPECTED. WHICH BASICALLY MEAN YOU TAKE PROVERBIAL DUMP ON THE CONCEPT OF DRAMA BECAUSE WE ALREADY KNOW THINGS ARE LIKELY GOING TO GO TO SHIT AT ANY POSSIBLE SECOND. WE READ THE ENDLESS SLOG AND JUST SITTING THERE WAITING FOR THE OTHER SHOE TO DROP.
Point 4 speaks to that as well:
4) STOP DOING CLIFFHANGERS
…HULK WILL COME BACK TO A SERIES 6 YEARS LATER BECAUSE IT GOOD, NOT BECAUSE HULK WANTED TO KNOW WHATEVER THE FUCK HAPPENED TO SO AND SO.
THINK ABOUT IT. THE BEST TV SHOWS KNOW THAT CLIFFHANGERS WORK GREAT IN WEEK-TO-WEEK EPISODES BUT COME OFF ENRAGING IN SEASON FINALES. THE BEST SEASON FINALES RESOLVE THE MAIN ISSUES AT PLAY AND YET LEAVE THE VIEWER WITH A TASTE OF THE PROBLEMS TO COME IN THE NEXT YEAR. WHICH, YOU KNOW, EXACTLY WHAT YOUR AWESOME FIRST BOOK DID (AND LO AND BEHOLD IT WORKED GREAT IN THE TV SERIES). THINK ABOUT IT: IF CLIFFHANGERS WORK REALLY POORLY IN SEASON FINALES, THEY WORK EVEN WORSE IN 1000 PAGE BOOKS THAT COME OUT EVERY 6 YEARS… SO STOP IT.
And finally (for my purposes here):
6) STOP WITH THE OBLIGATORY SHOCK VALUE
…AND YES, HULK MOST DEFINITELY TALKING ABOUT THE STABBING OF JON SNOW…
HULK MEAN, YOU COMPLETELY DESIGNED TO COME OUT OF NOWHERE, TO REPLICATED HOW IT FELT FOR JON HULK GUESS? UGH. THERE A CRUCIAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A READER BEING UNAWARE AND A CHARACTER BEING UNAWARE AND HOW THOSE ARE UTILIZED MATTER EXCEPTIONALLY. …YOU SO CAUGHT UP IN TRYING TO SURPRISE THE READER COMPLETELY INSTEAD OF DRAMATIZING IT AND THEN SURPRISING US WITH A TURN.
SEE WHAT MADE THE NED STARK MOMENT SO GREAT THAT IT NOT RANDOM IN THE SLIGHTEST. THE WHOLE SCENE PLAYS OUT BEFORE US. WE HANG WITH THE MOMENTS OF TENSION. WE WONDER WILL IT/WON’T IT HAPPEN. BUT WE HAVE FAITH THAT IT WON’T, NOT BECAUSE IT NOT IMPOSSIBLE, NOT BECAUSE YOU’VE MISLED US, BUT BECAUSE WE WANT IT TO WORK OUT FOR NED. AND OUR WANTS ALWAYS WORK IN COORDINATION WITH THE ESCALATION OF CONFLICT. AND IN THE SCENARIO OF ACTUAL DRAMA THE BAD THINGS HAPPENING BECOME A TURN, SOMETHING WE EMOTIONAL AND SAD ABOUT, BUT STILL FEELS EARNED AND RESONANT. WHAT IT NOT IS A COMPLETE FUCKING SURPRISE.
BUT NO. INSTEAD YOU THINK THAT BECAUSE WE LOVED THE AUDACITY OF THAT NED STARK MOMENT THAT WE JUST SEEKING THE SAME HIGH. SO THE ONLY WAY TO RECAPTURE THE INTENSITY TO MAKE THE CRAZY MOMENTS OF KILLING OFF BELOVED CHARACTERS EVEN MORE EXTREME. THEY OCCUR AS COMPLETE F-ING NONSENSICAL SURPRISES AND THEN YOU JUST EXPLAIN THE HOWS LATER. IT ABSURD.
THINK ABOUT IT: WHAT IF YOU HAD THE MEN CORNER JON? IF YOU HAD THEM BUILD UP THE TENSION BEFORE THE STABBING HAPPEN? YES IT MIGHT BE LESS SURPRISING, BUT IT WILL BE DRAMATIC AND RESONANT. IT WOULD FEEL LIKE A CLIMAX OF A DRAMA YOU BUILT UP AND NOT A CHEAP SHOT.
Where the show has followed the books in its telling of the story, the show has fucked up. Here we are (well, here you are. I stopped watching.) at the end of Season 5 with Sansa jumping off the Winterfell wall with Theon yet nothing really resolving there, definitely no revenge enacted on Ramsay by Sansa. Stannis seemingly killed by Brienne but nothing concrete and on-screen. The on-screen death of Jon that no one seems to believe is real and permanent. The death of Myrcella after a whole random, roundabout rescue attempt that could have all been cut from the narrative entirely. Arya’s apparent blindness, after 4 fucking seasons of trying to become an assassin to avenge her father. How many fucking cliffhangers does one show need?
Like the Hulk argues and like I argued about the Tarantino effect, I think the show is just too in love with its own shocking moments and expected “unexpected” twists that…well, that just isn’t any good for getting us to the place we all wanted to go to when we watched the first season.
So no matter what conversations happened between GRRM and the show runners as to how to wrap it all up, do we trust them now? I mean, all throughout my fandom of the show and books, I thought we all understood that there were levels to the story: that winter was coming to ruin everyone’s day; yet the ruling class was too distracted by their own bickering to notice and take steps to ensure the citizenry’s safety. Through the first couple of seasons, I wasn’t sure that viewers felt that tension; that maybe they thought it was all about who sits on the Iron Throne. But now, I’m not so sure the architects of the books and show understand that tension. Yes, the show is revealing more and more of the danger headed towards Westeros from beyond the Wall but…we’re still caught up in Bronn grab-assing in Dorne or Arya cleaning bodies.
Part of the reason people abandon shows and books they like is because they no longer trust the creators to tell a satisfying story (and yes, obviously, “satisfying” stories can be bummers; I’m not arguing for happy endings). Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire have made a huge gamble that the conclusion to the story will make the detours worthwhile. They’ve gone all-in on that bet and they’re hoping we’ll call and ride out the river. But, shit, maybe we need to know when to fold ’em. Maybe you let the high-roller take down this pot so you can win a few later. Maybe I’ve seen this Atlantic City casino episode of King of Queens a few too many times. Maybe this has become the Irish plays of blog posts. TODD AMBIVALENT.