The Game Must End

I seem to be among the few souls satisfied by Game of Throne’s final dumpster fire, which is less dumpster or fire than it seems. I’ve had no high hopes for the franchise’s conclusion ever since I read A Dance With Dragons and realized this was all going nowhere fast. Part of me wants to be baffled by how so many did, but that would be lying. Long have I beat this drum of doom. Now the day is here, this very day, in fact.

Before we continue, full disclosure and honesty: I am a Tolkien fan. Yes, a great part of my grudge with George R. R. Martin (GRRM) and GoT has been me being butt-hurt about how much LotR and Tolkien’s legacy gets dumped on vis-a-vis the former. “The American Tolkien”? I’ve been on a self-gratifying rant against that moniker for a decade, which informs much of my sentiment in this matter. Ironically, Tolkien too had trouble finishing his own works—the Lord of the Rings took about a decade of dithering to finish—but the key difference is that John suffered in private silence until he could produce a finished product, while George has leveraged his struggle in broad daylight, painting a picture of himself that was never going to stand the test of time. He’s cast himself as a ruthless scribe who’ll kill your puppy because that’s “realistic” or “unexpected,” a painstaking realist who pays close attention to logistics and time and something. This is a fire any writer knows not to play with. It’s irresponsible, unprofessional spin. He’s gotten away with it for far too long. What goes up must come down.

Nevertheless, to be fair to George, the “bad” season at hand is not all his fault, nor is he a hack. No matter what I say, no matter what stupid slice of my mind I’d like to indulge, the man is perhaps the most successful author ever. His characters are on everyone’s lips. His Song has been rightfully celebrated as one of the last few common cultural strands we enjoy in this polarized world. In terms of success and scale of influence alone, if not baseline quality of writing, he easily matches Tolkien. This I do not gainsay.

Instead, what irks me now is this attempt at damage control over something that neither needs it nor deserves it, with everyone, from George to D&D (the GoT show-runners) subtly pointing fingers, walking back earlier statements, and just plain lying about the roles they’ve played in this. To the first, the main problem with the last two, probably three, seasons of GoT has been pacing, and with it, characterization, which is indeed a betrayal of the show’s roots. Its earlier seasons were defined by its plodding pace and quieter moments filled with characters talking, getting us to like them through that talking. It was restrained. Now everything is compressed to hell for no better reason other than “we didn’t feel like taking our time.” Alas, things do take time, and Time does not suffer fools.

Still, it’s way too easy to take this mistake of execution and conflate it with a mistake of essence, which brings us to the divide tearing a once proud fandom apart. Take away all the shoddiness of bad scheduling and the core of the plot, the essence of what happens, the points on the outline and the beats they’ve aimed to hit—those all remain well and good, fitting neatly into the Song’s long tack. The Night King and the Walkers are Walking MacGuffins on page and screen. It’s only fitting they would come to a MacGuffin-y end. Dany’s turn to insanity has been set up from the very first book. You might be mad it went there, but you can’t deny it was a pretty straight shot. If you have earnest grievances with what’s been happening, not how, then I’m sad to be the bearer of bad news. Alas, the books won’t save you either. This is your supper. It’s Martin’s vision, albeit squeezed and dehydrated through a studio, but he signed that deal with his own arm and led it every step of the way.

Before we continue, let’s agree: D&D own all the blame in the world for the extent of the pacing problem. They had the luxury and leisure to choose whatever amount of time and resources they’d’ve liked to close this sucker out. They chose poorly. Nobody put a gun to their heads and told them they had to wrap up everything in 13 episodes. On the contrary, plenty extended the offer of more time. Nah, they wanted to do other things, which, uh, no. It doesn’t work like that: you don’t get to shirk from the obligations you sign up for. You made your fame and fortune on GoT. It’s only right and professional that you give it a proper send-off.

Continuing on, the sad fact that there was Everything To Wrap Up rests on the lone shoulders of George. He sowed the seeds of this fire long ago. Those who’ve been keeping careful eyes on his progress have known how troubled his handling of ASoIaF has been. As someone who’s taking a stab at writing books, I know very well how some parts of the piece write themselves, while others are a chore and a slog in the best of moods. Martin, like every author, has his preferences. He has a knack and love for historiography, that granularity of lists, names, details, heraldry, attention to (certain) details, that make his heart sing. But people age, the neurons adapt, time passes, and lo, chores that were once easy become monkeys on your back that won’t ever get off. It’s way more fun to plant seeds and watch them bloom than bring in the harvest. It even seems kinder: letting things grow, not cutting them down, yet in truth, unrestricted growth leads to choking and death. Pruning is just as necessary to health and prosperity in any sphere. In realizing how poorly we’ve exercised our will over the generations, we tend to overemphasize the catastrophe of will and ignore the catastrophe of chaos, even though catastrophe is catastrophe no matter its seed. Here, Martin has planted an overgrown garden of characters, plots, places, and names while procrastinating about that pruning. As of the last book, there remain more winding, disconnected plotlines than ever festered in the worst of Dorneville with less relative time to resolve them. I have no idea how you’re going to snip off Zombie Catelyn (wait, what?), the Dornish Cul-De-Sac, the Euron and Victarion (who?) Cruises, the Aegon (who too?) Invasion, the Littlefinger Loitering, the High Sparrow Session, the Jon Snow Resurrection (yep, still in the wings), the Flayman Chronicles, the Arya Training Montage (yep, still in progress), the big Meereen battle (still hasn’t happened after two books of setup) and bring things to a close within two books. Not without breaking a few omelettes, at least. There were (never counting the one-offs, of course) eight point-of-view characters in the first book, each with a relatively even amount of narrative. In the fifth, there were twice that number, but Jon, Tyrion, and Dany took up the lion’s share with the other baker’s dozen spread out like thin butter. There isn’t enough time to give them all their due. Some are redundant, easily pared down or dispensed with, but a reckoning there must be for any of this to move on.

Now, a Reckoning we have. Characters get cut, die like flies, or tossed out of the script like bad Halloween candy, begging the question: what did you expect? What were you expecting, really? Something unexpected? What would that look like? There’s only so many battles and scheming and routine treachery and shock and surprise you can take before it becomes provincial and boring. Chasing the phantom of “unpredictability” paints you into a different predictable corner, not above it. The flat circle remains flat and circular. People age, the neurons adapt. It’s been ten years. Cersei has always been the evil, ruthless, short-sighted wanna-be queen who’s been absurdly successful. Jon has always been a bland, expressionless idiot Chosen One who’s been absurdly successful (he got resurrected, for Christ’s sake). Daenerys has always been an absurdly successful semi-mad queen with no idea what’s she’s doing. Bran was always going to be the Three-Eyed Raven. Arya was always going to stab important people improbably. You see, Westeros? The tropes didn’t ruin you. The tropes were inside you all along. 

The Reckoning is putting GoT’s reputation in its proper place, and with it, Martin’s. That place isn’t a trash heap, but it’s not Valhalla either. Any author worth their salt knows damn well you can’t just kill off characters willy-nilly. They know better not to go out on that limb lest it break off while you’re dancing on it. Martin has. He’s done it guns blazing, because he, like a human, thought he could handle the risk when the time came. Now the limb’s cracking. That temptation to spin it as somehow being different, to kinda wash your hands of it just enough to get off the hook, is very strong, well-nigh irresistible.

The Reckoning is taking you to task for not keeping yourself in check. This is the advantage of maturity in consumption: when the bill comes due, you can afford it. The message behind Ned Stark’s death wasn’t “life is cruel” or “the good guys don’t win,” but “being a good guy itself isn’t enough to win.” Even that falls into the realm of “dying mentor figure sparks the Action.” Likewise, where its plot could have gone was always very predictable. There were only a handful of roads to follow, each fraught with charges of “ugh, obvious.” If Dany somehow defied all the odds and ruled wisely, wouldn’t that strike you as canned and contrived? Or what if Tyrion died without any resolution to his loose ends? Were the dragons were going to come through unscathed? …well, no otherwise there wouldn’t be much tension in the final arc. She’d just steamroll everyone, hmm. Did you think there wouldn’t be a Zombie Dragon? …well, it’s pretty obvious, but all the pieces were there and it’s a straightforward way to raise the stakes, huh. Did you think Dany was gonna waltz up to the Iron Throne and suddenly become a Good Queen with zero problems? …err, wait, she had that depressing vision of the Iron Throne with the ash and she didn’t get to reach it and, yikes, she does tend to make weird angry faces and over(re)act a lot…oh. Whatever the choice, someone will braid it into a rope to hang you with. Think about what that says about fandom.

So you’ll forgive me if I savor, just a little, not too much, how people, after enjoying their delusion for years, have turned on their baby in murder. “Why does GoT keep trying to surprise me? I CAN’T BE SURPRISED ANYMORE. EVERYONE’S SO HORRIBLE AND DUMB AND I’M OVER IT.” Hmm, well, maybe it was never that horrible, and maybe being horrible isn’t inherently noteworthy. How many of Shakespeare’s characters die horribly? Is that why people love them? Maybe. Or maybe “realism” isn’t what we’re looking for in stories, but something a bit more human and useful than “life is shitty.” Life is more complicated than that. We humans are capable enough that we’re right to expect more from each other. This uncomfortable truth is why GoT is failing to rise above its own essence. Martin’s critique of fantasy, that ruling is hard, life is cruel, virtue isn’t enough, etc., has always been insufficient, trite in its own way. “He ruled wisely” isn’t a dilemma he’s managed to solve because his take is still steeped in and wedded to a contradictory fascination with byzantine schemes, backstabbing, betrayal, awfulness, and the voyeuristic thrills that come with them. The Game is the point. The Wheel isn’t meant to be broken, not really. There are no people in Westeros questioning why hereditary monarchy or autocracy is flawed and inevitably leads to Mad Kings and Queens, that even the best kings suck because you’re still basing power and authority on random chance and Survival of the Fittest, that Ned Stark, Jon Snow, and Daenerys Targaryen end up looking rather the same to the common peasant. We can do better than the Game, both as individuals and as systems. It’s not enough to be “honest” in one direction. What saves Tolkien’s works is a lack of such pretense. The Lord of the Rings is an unabashed fairy tale, celebrating fantastical things, but reaching deeper and truer into our core through that. Game of Thrones is trying to have it both ways: take the fancy trappings of the fairy tale to get people on board, but still be edgy and “real” enough to be “taken seriously.” Which means, in the end, we can’t take it seriously at all.

The irony of fandom is that it’s so wrapped up in being smarter than stories, analyzing them, picking them apart, theorizing about them and bickering about those theories (the Protagonist Is Related to Someone Unexpected?!!), constantly hanging lanterns on “unlikely” things and demanding creators hang more of them on their own works, whatever the cost, that it’s ended up being too dumb for stories. The basic concepts of contrivance, theater, and the cute silliness of a narrative are unacceptable. Somebody has to comment on how silly it is. We can’t be children anymore. We have to be adults, very smart adults. Turns out that sucks, like we always knew. Most of Martin’s characters have survived, otherwise how else would you have a show? And most of those characters have done really stupid and baffling things from the beginning. Did you remember how Cersei started all this for…some reason? Remember how she constantly proclaimed her only concern was her three children, but then she killed Her Last Boy because zpzocbhapoihdproaksjds right after blowing up the Westerosi Vatican…right after that Vatican publicly humiliated her …and then people crowned her Queen instead of just storming the Red Keep and ripping her, one of the most despised figures in Westeros, apart, because apparently nobody in King’s Landing can put two and two together? Wait, this is a story? It has plot-holes? It’s been playing fast and loose with time and consistency forever? Why didn’t anybody tell me?

This is not LOST. This is not two suits making things up as they go along, or a sleazy auteur playing cutesy with a Mystery Box. No, there was a vision, an end-goal. The Original Screw-up, the only one that ever mattered, was in getting there. Martin set the stage for ridiculous expectations. D&D tripped off it. And yet, despite all that, this season is fine. Episode 2 was fantastic, easily on par with the series’ other great moments. Episode 3 was gripping and satisfying. Episode 4 was really stupid. (Ed Sheeran took up like ten minutes of gratuitous screen-time once, remember?) Episode 5 was abrupt and odd and filled with tons of people dying in horrible ways. That all sounds like GoT, doesn’t it? Things are turning out…pretty okay, and for a series that was always pretty okay, rough around the edges and trapped between competing mediums, treading a lot of familiar paths well but lying about it, enhanced and hampered by its production values, uplifted and leashed by its plot and actors, that’s hardly the worst end. You’re not mad at GoT. You’re mad the high is over, that you’re coming down to earth again.

Welcome back. When GoT ends tonight, however it ends tonight, think a bit more about these things. Develop your tastes, refine them, and remember why you loved this series so much in the first place. Don’t rewrite history yet again because it’s uncomfortable. Look at it in the eye this time. The moments that resonated with you will stay that way…if you let them. If you admit this is all pretend, that if anyone is to blame for being disappointed with the ending of a soap-opera of Swords, Boobs, and Dragons, it’s you. Not Martin, not D&D, but you. They have their own things to answer for. Take out the log in your own eye first. See clearer.

The show will go on, one way or another. But the Game…

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