In one of the most controversial seasons so far, Game of Thrones wrapped up its fifth season with a series of cliff-hangers and shocks–I was not impressed. I spent several weeks tuning into the show only to find myself wondering why I even bother. What was in previous years an entertaining respite from ordinary life turned into a tedious task full of frustration and flummoxed head-shaking. Now, make no mistake, the previous seasons were not without flaw either, but in the past the showrunners managed to balance out their lapses with a generally consistent narrative, compelling plot, and fantastic performances by the actors. This season that balance was missing. While the actors continued to shine, the overall narrative fell apart into a nonsensical, cacophonous mess that was season 5.
Three issues stood out that sank the show faster than Stannis’ ships at the battle of the blackwater. Of course, customary spoiler warning.
1. Dorne- For book readers and show watchers alike, Dorne was a novel and exciting setting. After several seasons of familiar locations, Dorne was to be an exotic oasis introducing new characters, customs, and locations in Westeros. Book-readers in particular were looking forward to the subplots of Dorne with its intrigue and mystique. The shows handling of Dorne was a monstrous let down. What in the books was a clever plot by the daughter of Doran Martelle, Arianne, to use Dornish inheritance customs to claim the Iron Throne for Myrcella and rally Dorne behind her, was in the show boiled down to a half-brained scheme by the Sand Snakes and Elaria to kidnap and mutilate the Lannister girl. Their plot was to quite stupidly to run into the Water Gardens–you know that place where Doran Martell literally hangs out all day under heavy guard watching his son and his bride to be–to kidnap her. All this while being the most recognizable female warriors in the country. Jaime and Bronn happen to have a nearly identical plot of rushing in and trying to kidnap his daughter/niece. What could possibly go wrong?
What ensues is something straight out of a b-rated comedy flick. The Sand Snakes and budding road trip duo, Jaime and Bronn, arrive and come face-to-face in one of the worst choreographed fight sequences concluded by a ludicrous speech of the monologue-phile Obara.
What in the books was a complex and thrilling scheme to put Myrcella on the throne and pit her claim against Tommen’s was reduced into a rushed sequence in the hopes that the paltry fighting would numb us to the stupidity. This was an opportunity for the showrunners to explore cultural difference in the world of Westeros, to give us a break from the eye-gougingly repetitive patriarchal plots of the rest of Westeros, and to reveal a secret game afoot for decades at the hands of Doran. Instead political intrigue was reduced to cheap Hollywood shortcuts with a few fight scenes, flashing breasts, and–shock–the death of Myrcella.
Now before I sound too much like a book-purist, I don’t mind changes from the book, but they have to make sense and serve a purpose. Even within the narrative of the show the Dorne sequence was idiotic at best. Not only was it a dumb plot, but it contradicted the internal logic of the narrative. Just last season, everyone’s favorite bad ass Oberyn, assured Cersei that in Dorne they “don’t hurt little girls” and that his daughters were actually friends of Myrcella.
Guess the showrunners conveniently forgot about that.
Now not all was a loss in Dorne. At least we got a chance to spend time with Alexander Siddig, whose performance as Doran was spot-on, even if they reduced one of the most clever players of the game of thrones to an ineffectual figure. The setting itself was stunning. And of course, the pole-axe-wielding Hotah. What’s not to like about that guy.
2. Shock over intrigue- At its core, Game of Thrones is a story about politics and intrigue set in a world of fantasy. George R. Martin is a student of Medieval history and the story he is writing is about the ugliness and messiness of politics. He subverts the traditional fantasy stereotypes of hero and villain and instead opts for a realistic portrayal inspired by actual political history. The fifth season of the HBO series drops the ball entirely on this. Instead of a focus on intrigue, politics, and a story that reveals complexity of character they opted for shock value to keep the audience titillated. It didn’t work.
Emblematic of this shift in focus was the lack of Varys and Littlefinger in the entire season. Both of them are the biggest players of the Game of Thrones and their machinations are what keep the stories going. The few times they’ve interacted directly with one another have given us some of the best dialogue of the entire series, forgiving the fact that Aidan Gillen decided to give Littlefinger the Bale Batman voice randomly.
This season has been a barren wasteland of plots and it is no longer clear who is even competing for the Iron Throne. Instead we were given cheap thrills at the cost of character development. The rape of Sansa by Ramsey was one of the most inane decisions the show has made so far. In addition to the fact that their reliance on gratuitous rape is a serious problem, it also reduced the Sansa character as a plot device for the redemption of Theon and to portray the evil of Ramsay.
But dudes, we already got that Ramsay was evil. What was the point of turning him into a seemingly all-powerful super-villain especially when in the books he’s just a brute? Was it worth the price of turning Sansa into a damsel-in-distress? We spent several seasons watching this girl get brutalized, then last season when Darth Sansa made an appearance we finally saw some agency only to go back to using her as a means of making the audience feel uncomfortable. All for what? To watch Theon save her and then for them to jump off the wall. My eyes rolled so far back into my skull I could see the back of my head.
Then you had the death of Barristan, one of the greatest knights of Westeros, at the hand of a rabble of minimally armed, untrained insurgents. Whatever. And how could I forget Loras and Shireen. Loras, who in the books is a powerful warrior who’s off laying siege to some castle or another, is reduced to a caricature. In the show they define him solely by his sexuality and turn him into nothing more than a plot point to show the Faith Militant is homophobic. Finally, you had the painful-to-watch death of Shireen at the hands of a man who a few seasons back refused to let his wife take the rod to her and who in the books demands that if he dies at the Battle of Winterfell, the war must continue until his daughter sits on the throne.
Rather than think through interesting plots, schemes, and give us the political maneuvering we all love, they just threw random darts at the wall and stuck in something shocking. Now in all fairness, George R. Martin’s books are full of brutal deaths, rape, and shock value. But it never overshadows the politics, the intrigue, and it serves a narrative purpose.
3. Yes, all men must die, but how about Valar Dohaeris- George R. Martin loves to remind us that all men must die. He’s even made it a standard greeting and phrase in Essos with “Valar Morghulis” just to hammer it in. While his books do not shy away from killing characters, even main point of view characters, he’s actually far less trigger-happy than the showrunners. Several characters that are alive and well in the books are dead on the show. Some of this is understandable as the show has to condense stories that are usually around 1,000 pages long. Changes from the book to the show are natural and expected. But the show’s reliance on death as shock value is no longer serving its purpose.
In order for fantasy to be successful there is an implicit trust between reader and author that at the end of the story there will be some level of catharsis and that the ending can be processed emotionally. It is the fundamental cornerstone of fantasy because the genre is meant to be an escape. We read and watch fantasy to escape the world we live in and step into an world built by the imagination of the author with input from the reader.
The origins of fantasy are in fables, fairy tales, and myths. Now that doesn’t mean fantasy needs to be feel good. George R. Martin certainly isn’t the first to write a gritty or dark fantasy series. There are plenty of others. Nor does fantasy need to have a happy ending. JRR Tolkien’s books, which birthed the genre, end on a bittersweet note. However there is always a sense of catharsis. You as the reader are able to walk away and process the ending. While George R Martin has subverted the traditional tropes, he keeps to this implicit trust–at least he has so far. The books, while full of shock and hard-to-read parts, usually are so big and there are so many plots and subplots that by the end you are able to emotionally process the tough bits and walk away feeling ready for the next book in the series. This is where the shows fails miserably this season.
Because the shows have to condense the story of George R. Martin and because they don’t have the same freedom to follow every little subplot, finding that balance between the darker elements of the story with moments that help us process can be tricky. Every season they’ve let this balance slip ever so little. This season they completely lost their grip on it. Their reliance on the shock deaths and brutal moments isn’t a new thing. They’ve done it every season. Even the nonsensical changes from the book or poor plot decisions aren’t new. Each season they’ve had one or two (remember the rape of Cersei?), but overall they’ve managed some balance. Why this season sticks out is because the balance is missing. The deaths and shock no longer serve a purpose.
Fantasy is like a vacation. You go on vacation to relax. Sure, they’ll be bumps along the way, moments that annoy you, but when you come back home you should be refreshed and ready for work. If you come back more drained then when you left then the vacation was a failure. That’s what I got with the last season. It was hard to watch, going between tedious and boring to uncomfortable. It didn’t end on a note that makes me want to tune in next year.
In all fairness the entire season was not a loss. Jonathan Pryce’s depiction of the High Sparrow was fantastic, even if the Faith Militant were botched. Lena Headey’s acting during Cersei’s Walk of Shame was a class on nonverbal communication, and Danaeyrs finally meeting Tyrion was certainly exciting, even loved her “break the wheel” speech.
Some of the problems of this past season may also be a result of tiny changes leading to bigger consequences. Some of the earlier changes which seemed minor at the time may have led to the moments we saw this season. Stannis for example, while brilliantly acted, is portrayed far more zealous and fanatical than he is in the books. Though a loyal servant of the Lord of Light, he’s more reluctant in the books. That slight change may have led to the death of Shireen, something that does not make sense for the book character, but makes sense for the show character. Same with Loras. In the books he’s a complex character who is a powerful warrior and his sexuality certainly doesn’t define him. By changing him earlier on to be more open about his sexuality and letting that define his character he becomes, in season 5, a target.
And of course the best part of the season was probably Hardhome. Finally seeing the threat of the White Walkers for what it is, not an invasion or an upcoming war, but the unstoppable force of nature was thrilling. At this point the only reason I am going to tune into next season is to watch the White Walkers kill everyone. That would make me happy.