For many people, myself included, there is a paradox at the heart of Game of Thrones fandom: the quality of the show motivates you to read the books, which then compels you to complain about all the ways the series has failed to live up to them. In my case, I never would’ve even heard about the books if it weren’t for the show, but that’s never stopped me from complaining about the latter on the former’s account.
The foolishness of that exercise actually runs deeper than that, because it isn’t just that I never would’ve heard of A Song of Ice & Fire if not for Game of Thrones: it’s that I never even would’ve heard of the show if they hadn’t immediately started dumbing down the original story from the jump.
The pilot, which is allegedly so bad that no member of the public will ever see it, hewed closely to the source material in ways that apparently made it unwatchable. In keeping with the rigid social norms of the actual Middle Ages, the Starks barely interacted like a family —a not-at-all-maternal Catelyn nagged Ned into going to King’s Landing for the sake of their social standing. The Dothraki were dressed like actual Mongols, and Daenerys was portrayed by an actress with more of the otherwordly Wizards of the Coast vibe that the Targaryens had in the books. Apparently, the pilot never bothered to point out that Jamie and Cersei were brother and sister, totally robbing the Bran-defenestration scene of its incestuous juice. I’ve heard plenty of people say that Bran’s fall was their hook for the whole series, so needless to say, HBO execs were far from hooked after Dan & Dave’s first attempt.
The main reason that it didn’t play is that visual media have far less space for character development and world-building than books do, as doing those things visually requires you to expend precious script pages and screen time. A book can bring the reader into a Medieval frame of reference to experience the events on those terms, but media has to bring the Medieval stuff into our frame of reference for it to have any dramatic impact. A book can simply state two characters’ last names, with maybe a sentence or two to color their shared history, and we’ll believe they’re family members, but this show has to take the time to convince us that two random-ass white people — who look nothing alike, save for their wigs — are really related.
So Catelyn was recast, from the too-hot Jennifer Ehle to the ultra-maternal Michelle Fairley, and her part was rewritten to boot: she was much nicer to her children, and much less Medievally polite to Jon Snow, because treating him like shit made the whole bastard thing more emotionally accessible for the audience. The Dothraki were simplified to a bunch of rapist savages, instead of another culture that had to be explained to viewers. Rather than sacrifice audience identification to maintain a high-fantasy ouevre, they recast Daenerys with the eminently relatable Emilia Clarke.
And it worked. Eight years later, a story that was reshaped to the inherent shallowness of the visual medium is the cultural juggernaut of that medium, and that only happened because they dumbed it down. The reason this series survived to hit all the hallowed major beats from the novels, from the Steps of Baelor to the Red Wedding, was that they pared down everything about the story and colored the many shades of gray in black and white. Any time I ever complain about the show, I do so with all that in mind.
But this was still a show that changed TV forever when they killed off the only big-name actor in the entire cast. It was a show where your favorite character was on the same side as the despicable little shit who ordered Ned’s death. It was a show where the alleged heroes constantly screwed up and doomed thousands of poor people to die horrible deaths for the glory of their last names. It was a show that had no real heroes, except maybe for a sullen teenager with great hair — who is, not coincidentally, the only character who doesn’t seek or expect power.
Emphasis on “was” that show, and “had” no heroes. Watching the Avengers Assemble to take on the GoT’s long-foreshadowed apocalypse in “The Long Night,” and seeing it end with that fuck-yeah moment of crowd-pleasing triumph almost as abruptly as it started… it just felt so conventional. Good guys fight the bad guys, the bad guys lose, and no one particularly important dies. The massive scale only served to emphasize that a show unlike anything else on TV had become a movie like so many others.
To be fair, I was blown away by that scale, at least until I completely lost track of what the hell was going on. Though the last half of the battle abandoned any sense of spatial relationships by design, the dark, fiery chaos started to lose me in earnest after awhile, particularly as I was shown a parade of characters who had been so rich in their disparate arcs shoehorned into a single Manichean struggle, one which flattened everything that made them interesting. No room was left for individual motivations beyond survival. There wasn’t even a feint towards anyone murdering anyone else for their own personal gain in the future, which would’ve been on-brand.
I recognize that George wrote the show into this corner before it even began. The White Walkers have never been as interesting as the human politics that make the show what it is. Frankly, the specifics of the White Walkers were a narrative albatross in the show universe, since they were always a threat that is fundamentally incompatible with the rest of the story. Getting deep into them would have made it impossible for the final three episodes to focus on the titular game, whose stakes we actually care about.
For as much as it was a problem to be dealt with, I had the same issue with the White Walkers’ fate that I’ve had with so much of the show for the past few years: it felt so rushed. Once you got past the battle, the dreaded harbingers of the apocalypse were dispatched almost as handily (and plottily) as the Tyrells and Martells were last season. I tolerated all the transcontinental teleportation and single-stabbing-based political realignments that have made the last few seasons feel oversimplified, because I thought they were sacrificing coherence to make this long-awaited sequence work narratively and thematically. Now, after the culmination of eight years of build-up, it appears Armageddon was yet another piece to hastily knock off the board.
Obviously, there are still pieces on that board, and the question is whether the show will use this shocking reset to return to its jaundiced view of its characters for its final three episodes — a certain entitled, nephew-banging rich bitch in particular.
I think I’ve earned one “You know, in the books…” at this point: you know, in the books, every decision Daenerys makes is impetuous and driven by her entitlement to a crown she did nothing to earn. She’s drunk on power from her dragons, and basically everything she does and causes war and human suffering on a massive scale (which then leads to her panicking and making even more catastrophic mistakes).
However, the Essos chapters are frustrating and aimless for those exact reasons, and basically unadaptable, particularly back when they didn’t have the money to show armies. In the interest of keeping the audience engaged, the showrunners made the choice to make her “Breaker of Chains” schtick a bit more heroic than it was on the page (or at least to focus less on dysentery). Dany became an honest-to-god hero for awhile. Even her dragon-based executions were portrayed as crowd-pleasing scenes, like police brutality is on The Wire. This hero narrative was incongruous with the cynical tone of the show, so much so that they ruined the best character on the show with its earnestness: pour one out for King’s Landing Tyrion. Pour. One. Out.
Now her and Jon need to go to war, and one of them needs to die. Cersei and Euron Greyjoy can’t keep up their end of a two-sided fight, since they’re useless in the face of Dany and Jon’s living superweapons, and there are no other characters left in the Capitol anymore, anyway. I don’t say that because I have a team, or care who wins on any level other than narrative satisfaction. This is a show made by Americans (who vote) that unequivocally condemns the unearned romance of monarchy — fuck Megan, Harry, Kate, and Will—and they’ve made it pretty clear that this is not a prize anyone *should* win. When I hear people speculating about who “wins the game” I feel like I’m watching Season 5 of The Wire all over again, listening to people talk about Omar vs. Marlo’s confrontation like a heavyweight bout, as if that was even remotely close to the point of what they were watching.
No, the point was to portray a system driven by cynical self-interest, crushing everyone it ruled over and morally ruining those who sought to control it. That was once the point of this show too, and after two seasons (at least) of dumbing this story down beyond all recognition, I’d really love just a few more hours of that old familiar feeling, of complex conflicts in which no one is a hero and everyone is at least a little bit of a villain. After all, it’s the game we all came here to play.
And if Tyrion could fuck someone over, just for old time’s sake, I’d genuinely appreciate it.