An Illusory Dream of Spring

SPOILER ALERT This isn’t a post about spring in Duluth, though the title of George R.R. Martin’s unfinished final novel to his saga seems a fitting metaphor on any number of levels. Last night I wrapped up the one TV series I have watched with any interest over the past five years, though by the end, only inertia kept me going. I sort of wish my review after season five of Game of Thrones was the last testament on it instead of slogging through to the grand finale. I nearly didn’t renew my HBO for the start of the new season, I nearly turned it off midway through one of this season’s garbled episodes, and yet I was invested enough that I held the door and made it through.

Game of Thrones’ conclusion was an unfortunate waste of some great acting talent, beautiful cinematography, and some quality work in the early seasons. I won’t rehash those frustrations about pacing and character development here much: thousands of angry fans and intelligent writers have already made their opinions abundantly clear, and for the most part, I share them. I’m not really bothered by the idea of Danaerys’s Mad Queen turn or Jon Snow’s fate or even the coronation of King Bran. What I did hate was how Game of Thrones set all of this up, and that the patient air of mystery around the series succumbed to a rush through plot twists that were either predictable or implausible given everything else we’d been taught about this universe over the previous seasons. Instead of a Shakespearean rise and fall, Danaerys’s turn was an unsatisfying jolt into a Nuremburg rally. Bran’s near-total disappearance from the plot over the last few seasons rendered his ascension bewildering, and the scene of his anointment was a forced, wretched wreck that captured everything that went wrong. Even in a series of zombies and dragons, the plot holes, too numerous to list here, were bigger than the one the zombie dragon blasted through The Wall in season 7.

The whole final season was in the throes of an identity crisis: Game of Thrones tried to be all of the things, and got far too complicated because of it. Was this a story of good against evil, or a morally murky exploration of what it means to hold power? The struggle with the White Walkers, in my take, damaged the complexity that had been at the story’s core. Evil zombie stories aren’t my cup of tea, but it’s certainly possible to execute one well, and tell compelling stories about good and evil and use them as allegories and so on. In Game of Thrones, though, the battle with the Walkers was an odd twist for a story otherwise so full of nuance. We never really learned who they were or why they enjoyed creating conceptual art out of human body parts. (Perhaps they were just misunderstood artists?) They forced everyone to line up into good and evil camps and established battle lines that were far too clean for Westeros.

And then, midway through the final season, the White Walkers were just…gone, and with nowhere near enough time left in the series to re-align things in a satisfying way. After a battle to the death against pure evil, the stakes of a fight with wine-guzzling Cersei Lannister struggled to stack up, and needed implausible plot-vehicle villains (Euron Greyjoy), falsely hyped mercenaries (the Golden Company), and marvelously inconsistent technological innovations (Qyburn’s ballistas) to create the illusion of a level playing field, which was swiftly un-leveled by Drogon in the span of half an hour. Cersei, the great antagonist of the series, merely watched and brooded from her tower, and Danaerys more or less played out her exact same story arc at 10,000 times the speed.

Some critics such as Brian Phillips with The Ringer have used David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s directorial struggles to give George R.R. Martin his due, and I think that’s deserved: as I said a few years ago, Martin is a marvelous world-builder, and it’s certainly not coincidental that the series lost its pacing when it ran out of source material. I also agree with Phillips’ conclusion that creative genius is a necessary spark that all the technical mastery and organizational precision will never be able to capture. But Martin’s own inability to publish another book makes me wonder if the whole sprawling universe has just become so unwieldy that no one can land the dragon in a satisfying way. Is it better to have a deeply frustrating ending, or no ending at all?

Game of Thrones’ botched endgame fuels my own beefs with fantasy and science fiction as genres that I expressed in a reflection on literature last year. Their ability to build complex worlds can become all-consuming and collapse in on itself. Even highly successful series that do have coherent narrative arcs–let’s take Lord of the Rings or the three original Star Wars films as the most basic examples possible–leave so many crumbs and loose threads that the demands of fan pressure and the allure of dollar signs can take the whole enterprise down the rabbit hole and away from the narrative precision of its founding creator. (This isn’t to say that fan fiction and derivative works can’t also plague stories more rooted in realism, but it’s a somewhat less common phenomenon.) The media circus that is modern television and film is also a beast more voracious than any dragon that, while fascinating, will leave me more than pleased to leave it all behind and return to my preferred world of fiction about normal humans on this planet.

Rather than linger on the “eternally fungible” Dothraki and Unsullied or Grey Worm’s abysmal negotiating, I’ll conclude with a few positives about this all-consuming series. While Lena Headey’s talents went to waste in Season 8, the Lannisters’ collective arcs remained the most satisfying in the show, even with Jaime lurching here and there with poor Brienne. Some of my own favorites, like Jorah and Olenna Tyrell and (sort of) Varys, made satisfying exits that were firmly in character. Tyrion got in a few final quality soliloquies. Kit Harrington’s Jon Snow, who usually bored me, finally rose to the occasion in the final episode, and also came to a satisfying ending. Sansa’s story was one of genuine growth and just deserts, and a welcome contrast to the bevy of characters who seemed to succumb to the most thinly drawn caricatures of their own natures. I don’t know if Bran deserved his crown, but by the logic of Westeros, Sansa certainly deserved hers.

And so we bid a fond farewell to needless torture and incest-fests and wanton slaughter and the bloodlust they inspired in us. As I predicted after season five, the collective reaction to the final season’s dumpster fire was enormously amusing. We thank Game of Thrones for introducing us to sexposition and a healthy helping of quality catchphrases, though let’s please stop trying to give Sam credit for inventing democracy when the Greeks were there over a thousand years before the Wars of the Roses that inspired Martin. I congratulate Drogon for his wisdom to roast the Iron Throne once and for all, and like him, I think it’s time we collectively fly off to find some new adventures.


One thought on “An Illusory Dream of Spring

  1. I think the show runners were the biggest betrayers of the plot and character arcs – once the story went off book they made the easier choices. The power of this show has been how it sets us up and then violates our happier-ever-after, best-case-scenario expectations. Ideally the ending should have left us all gasping, ala Ned Stark’s beheading and the Red Wedding. All of our favorite characters should have perished, justly or not! (OK, maybe Sam Tarly could have been spared, to appease us by getting a glimpse of democratic rule coming to Westeros…)

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