I watched the show, from beginning to end, and still find it to be one of the most overrated TV series in years next to LOST.
This isn’t a revelation that came with the poorly-written, lackluster finale where Arya Stark turns into Frodo Baggins at the end of Return of the King but within the first season itself. Yes, the one that so many have retroactively portrayed as being close to perfection while ignoring the telltale signs of issues that’d become apparent in future episodes. Even Saturday Night Live had a sketch back then, which has since been scrubbed from the internet (for some reason — but I’ll assume that a segment of Game of Thrones fans are giant crybullies), mocking the gratuitous nudity and sex in the brothel scenes (apparently we’re too dumb of an audience to understand what happens in a place referred to as a “brothel”) by speculating they were taking advice from an over-sexed thirteen-year-old boy on set. It perfectly represented everything wrong with the series, just as it began, and now it’s gone…
As time went by, subsequent seasons came out and I noticed others commenting on the overuse of rape as if it were some great surprise. Really? Do you think a show that’d be so pandering with (largely) female nudity would leave rape as shock value dramatics off the table? Even though it manages to have varied and layered female characters unlike many shows and movies, which erroneously think a “strong female character” is simply a male action hero with different reproductive organs, you still have them getting sexually violated or physically beaten as if they were in a snuff film and it all functions as a juvenile approach to character-building. The kind of grotesque non-creativity that Satoshi Kon deftly criticized twenty-two years ago in Perfect Blue that goes unheard while Darren Aronofsky heavily borrowed from it.
There’s a lot of problems I have with the series but, to avoid making it a series of impenetrable blocks of text, I’ll make a somewhat breezy Cracked.com-style list of my three major issues. Starting with…
1. HISTORICAL FICTION WITH MAGIC (KINDA)
If there’s one thing I can’t stand in horror stories involving zombies, it’s the refusal of characters to refer to zombies as “zombies.” They always have to come up with some awkward alternative, as if it’s embarrassing to utter the word. But…why? They’re animated cadavers that mindlessly devour human flesh — they are zombies, based on the common pop culture portrayal of them. Some may run than limp along, others more invulnerable to damage, and can even have fungal growths spouting from their craniums like The Last of Us but they’re still zombies. Is it because the creators think to have characters refer to them as such be “too silly”? Why be so hesitant to embrace zombies fully as horror story monsters in a horror story? Why act as if they’re anything else?
Similarly, watching Game of Thrones is more like watching historical fiction about the War of the Roses with the pretense of also being a fantasy adventure. The majority of the series is a bunch of people standing or sitting around discussing statecraft and all the fantasy elements, like the dragons or magic, are few and far inbetween until later on. They’ll appear to remind us that this is, in fact, a fantasy story but will remain downplayed as we watch a bunch of similar-looking honky motherfuckers as they speak of the fake politics of a fake kingdom with a fake history at interminable length. Maybe you’re supposed to be impressed by how Shakespearean it all is but The Bard himself was more willing to embrace the fantastical in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest while this show only does it begrudgingly despite the intentional inclusion of those elements.
It would certainly be easier to accept, if it were a stage production, technical limitations and that much of the plot would have to be driven by dialogue via character interaction. However, Game of Thrones isn’t a stage production — it is an expensive televised series, yet it feels like a stage production nonetheless. It has no excuse to be that way, other than pompously self-satisfied enough to assume soap opera-style melodrama makes up for the lack of concrete action.
If Game of Thrones was titled “The War of the Roses” and actually about the War of the Roses, I’d have far less issue with that storytelling format. I’d be more willing to tolerate all the statecraft because there’s a real-world historical basis for it and, hell, you might learn something from it. Though a dramatization of those events, they are based on an important occurrence that shaped the United Kingdom as a confederation of nations inhabiting the same island(s) — something that has affected how we live right now, in some way or another. For all the real-world parallels Game of Thrones tries to use as part of its setting, it doesn’t really matter if you lack an attachment to Westeros as a place and having such would only be possible if you’ve already spent time immersed within it. The only perspective you see of Westeros is from those with immense power, compared to others, as they go about their political machinations. You never really get a sense of how the other half lives and I can’t help but find it aggravating as peasants and slaves exist only to aggrandize or demonize those in power, never to explore their perspective of the events. They may as well be non-player characters in a videogame than real people.
The reason I despise talking about the novels with people who’ve read them, as someone who hasn’t, is how some insist I should read them to “get” and “truly appreciate” the setting. But, as I’ve said elsewhere, declaring who does or doesn’t “get it” is fanboyish gate-keeping based on obsessive adoration of the content than an understanding of the narrative structure or overall cultural context. Maybe, when discussing what makes the characters unlikable in a modern context, I don’t want to be chastised because I’m just supposed to take everything as a given — immune to all scrutiny — while purposefully ignoring the world outside of it. Except it is a product of our modern culture and did not form in a vacuum separate from that culture. The books and TV series using real-world parallels from the past at all means any attempt at keeping it separate from reality is utterly inane. At least when it came to Lord of the Rings, stuff like The Silmarillion was supplemental than integral to understanding the story of a halfling journeying to throw a piece of mystical bling into a volcano. In fact, LotR never shied away from the fact it was a fantastical story in a fantastical setting the way Game of Thrones did until latter-day seasons. Though, even then, they botched it.
2. MAGIC: THE ULTIMATE DEUS EX MACHINA
I’ve never been as fond of fantasy as I have sci-fi when it comes to storytelling. Though concepts within both genres are wholly imaginary — sci-fi usually attempts to explain the mechanics of its technologies, in as internally logical a way as possible. Faster-Than-Light space travel might not be realistic but having characters, who’re informing the unaware, explain how it works which adds both a sense of texture to that world as well as setting up rules that those characters are governed by within it. But magic? At best, it’s vaguely defined — at worst, it’s arbitrary.
It’s a lot more interesting to watch an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where they’re dealing with starship engine troubles, discussing these well-established aspects of that device and the inner-workings in order to fix it, as opposed to seeing Gandalf use spells in the most convenient of times without a proper explanation as to why he didn’t do it before (those giant eagles would’ve cut down on a lot of travel time). He’s brought back from death in a more powerful form and the reason for it comes down to “just ’cause.” How the fuck can there be any tension, by that point? All dire situations can be fixed by Gandalf and the only reason he doesn’t is that Tolkien willed it so.
I know I just argued about the show’s unwillingness to fully embrace its fantastical elements, but part of that is because usage of magic becomes common in later seasons and ruined by the haphazard writing. The initial nature of it being seldom used is dropped for a more typical portrayal where it can pretty much do whatever the showrunners want at the moment to either increase or relieve tension, though it may not make any sense, than this unpredictable and unwieldy force as suggested in the story. The show couldn’t commit to its own hesitancy in using magic. It ends up going all Gandalf as the conclusion drew near since it’s easier to tell a fantasy story in that way, than sticking with what has been given precedence and keeping things consistent.
I assumed, at first, magic was downplayed because so much indicated that — within this setting — it was ultimately unreliable and tended to make situations worse as a result. It was admittedly refreshing that one of the reasons magic was almost non-existent is that its practitioners, like Melisandre, were never consistent with the efficacy of their spellcraft. She sacrificed an innocent girl under the assumption that would lead to an important battle being won, but that doesn’t happen — the would-be king’s army fails miserably and Melisandre’s contribution didn’t help at all. She just burned a child alive based on a premonition that supposedly came from some fire god. Everyone else, on her word alone, simply took it on faith that human sacrifice would work in their favor and that adds a level of realism to the show far more than people dryly talking fantasy politics for tens of minutes. People in the past did exactly that, presuming certain atrocious rituals would please supernatural forces, and the results weren’t that much different.
When Melisandre manages to resurrect Jon Snow after being murdered, it’s portrayed as being more of a happy accident than anything else. There’s a delayed reaction that makes her think the spell didn’t work at all. Problem is that, past this point, magic is increasingly useful to being downright uncharacteristic and contradicting what came before. It even allows one character (Beric Dondarrion) to keep coming back to life, after numerous on-screen deaths, and to set his sword aflame as if he were in Dark Souls. So, this “Lord of Light” will turn that guy into an undead killing machine for no adequate reason other than “fate” while sacrificing a child based on their whims to win a battle doesn’t do anything? What an asshole! The fact Melisandre keeps doing things in favor of such a wretched deity, who screws them over in times of need when not refusing to assist them whatsoever, only makes her look like a dumbass than some wise mage…
Unfortunately, she’s not the only unbearably unintelligent character featured. It also seems, with many others, the showrunners caved into fan service — completely forgetting how those characters were written in previous seasons along with the ever-present possibility of their expendability. Y’know, the one thing the show is most known for.
3. NO LOVE FOR KINGS, QUEENS, LORDS, OR LADIES
I’ll never, ever understand the fondness others had for this guy:
Ned Stark, if you were really paying attention, isn’t only a complete fool who brought death unto himself (he was very credulous of someone who is obviously untrustworthy yet never expects betrayal) but also a total piece of shit who made the conflict featured throughout worse due to short-sighted apathy anda slavish devotion to the divine right of kings.
Did everyone forget that, within the very first episode, he completely dismissed the warning of two men who saw the White Walkers before decapitating them? That his reason for doing so was basically “it is the law and you can’t contradict it”? I’d argue it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that one act alone almost doomed everyone else in the story, making them ill-prepared for the Night King and his zombified hordes. Calling this guy “heroic” is almost kind of offensive, especially when you find out he’s well-aware of Robert Baratheon’s incompetence as a leader and supported his rule for the pettiest of reasons.
He didn’t go to war against Aerys Targaryen II because he was a sadistic ruler that made the people under his reign suffer horribly (Jaime Lannister, however, rightfully killed him for that exact reason), but because his best buddy wanted to have sex with his hot sister and denied it. Making it unforgivable when he lies about the truth of the matter, that the relationship between Rhaegar and Lyanna was entirely consensual and not an act of rape (of course that has to be brought up!), that rationalized Robert’s war to become a gluttonous and wasteful king who doesn’t really improve anything. Ned knows this system is broken and the people in charge are corrupt as well as incapable of proper governance, but he nonetheless continues to support it because…it’s the law. The guy may as well be the Sheriff of Nottingham yet people keep acting like he’s goddamn Robin Hood.
It’s bad enough the show has a baffling number of characters to keep track of, many of whom only serve a perfunctory role and not developed past it, but that a majority of prominent ones are members of a feudal monarchy. They tend to be bougie pricks who never truly suffered under the opulence they lived in while everyone else was reduced to squalor. Like Ned Stark, most don’t reconsider the system to be a cruel joke that needs to be broken down and rebuilt from scratch with all the evidence of its disadvantages. Just about everything within the story implies that rule based on royal lineage only engenders endless conflict as numerous families manipulate and wage war with one another to gain a position of superiority regardless of the collateral damage caused. To hold such an amount of overwhelming power indefinitely until another challenger comes along, as more collateral damage is caused in the process. Not to mention, noted by some characters, those born into noble houses aren’t inherently more skilled at statecraft than anyone else and assuming that’s the case is part of the problem. Plus, well, the inbreeding that makes them mentally and emotionally unstable.
I can imagine some (disingenuous) pedants would argue characters espousing anachronistic viewpoints in a setting evocative of Pre-Renaissance Europe would, somehow, break all immersion. Yet this doesn’t explain why characters such as Tyrion Lannister or Oberyn Martell exist as well as the fact they’ve been two of the most popular characters on the show. Both frequently voice attitudes and behave in ways, closer to our own values and comportment in reality, that clearly make them outliers within the setting. It was nice, after so many scenes of people murdering infants and children like it’s a mundane activity, to have someone like Oberyn come along to point out how awful they are for doing such.
Both of them are well aware of their position in the world but, rather than be deferential to nobility, are often critical of it — Tyrion himself knowing that, if not born a Lannister, he’d of been culled as a newborn and frequently shows disdain for how others exploit “honor” to justify the unjustifiable. They know that almost all nobility, far from being majestic, is comprised of vainglorious human garbage. Then there’s Davos, the closest person to being “nouveau riche” in the cast. A guy so laid back that he doesn’t treat his new status as anything of note — never holding it above others or with a rigid sense of obligation, his loyalties based on his internal moral compass — and that informality makes him just as relatable to any contemporary person as either Tyrion or Oberyn.
If there’s any indication the showrunners aren’t responsible for the nuanced characterization of women in the cast, as much as G.R.R. Martin, it’s Arya Stark. Even the actress portraying her, Maisie Williams, had issues with how her character had become invulnerable instead of dying and whose arc was anti-climactic as there was no pay-off for the set-up. I’d add that it’s also when the showrunners fall into the trap of turning her into another vapid iteration of a “strong female character.”
Arya becoming a single-minded, emotionless assassin at the cost of her childhood should’ve been a tragic story to the very end than treated triumphantly at any point — another sign that pursuit of the Iron Throne only ruins the lives of others, with youths faring worse than anyone else. It’s acknowledged, once or twice, but she becomes defined wholly by how supposedly “badass” she is and ends up killing the Night King in a contrived manner ’cause fan service probably. The straw that broke the camel’s back, for me, was how dozens upon dozens of people in King’s Landing are being burned alive by Daenerys’ dragon while remaining unaffected herself. It’s almost like she was surrounded by an invisible everything-proof shield! Then a horse, also unharmed, comes out of nowhere to give her a ride and…that’s when I truly stopped giving a singular shit whatsoever.
There is another fantasy story, also based on a series of novels, which I wanted Game of Thrones to resemble a bit more: The Witcher.
It fully embraces the fantastical while managing to weave it into incredibly personal stories dealing with the human condition. Where monsters and people meet one another and, rather than any killing, come to profound existential truths with a tragic or heart-warming end attached. Politics, parallel to both past and present, are dealt with in a succinct manner than lost under a mountain of minutiae that is meaningless in the long run. All while fully acknowledging conflicts between the affluent are always masturbatory and help no one but themselves — the kingdoms and their rulers feeling interchangeable despite their ostensible and self-proclaimed differences (hint: they all fucking suck). Magic is not just a superpower that operates purely by the will of the storytellers but an arcane form of science with cohesive rules. Its practitioners are more like chemists, physicists, and engineers who follow specific methods and formulae for results than wizards flinging their hands around and making particle effects appear. Even the titular character, Geralt, treats the monsters he hunts less like the mythical beasts they are and no different to any other animal (or even person) as if he was just a gamekeeper — between the moments he’s either acting as a soldier of fortune, an investigator, or a political advisor.
It should be clarified what introduced me to the series wasn’t any of the novels, like many of those who watched Game of Thrones, but the third and final installment of the videogame series. I literally started at the end of Geralt’s story and, due to being was so intrigued by the world and those inhabiting it, decided to go back to the beginning of it all. Yet, having watched Game of Thrones from beginning to end, I feel the exact opposite about A Song of Ice & Fire — I’ve glimpsed into this place and its people, but far too alienated to indulge further. It was an exercise in drudgery, chasing a carrot at the end of a stick in the vain hope of finally catching it, that only ended in further disappointment. There’re things I liked about it such as the cast and production design, much in the same way with most Marvel movies, but the whole package is still less than the sum of its parts.
I could concede that the show “ended as good as it could have” but…that’s defeatist bullshit. It’s just setting the bar low and excusing creative laziness even as the show put itself on such a pedestal. Anything less than giving us the moon would be a broken promise because that’s what they advertised to everyone, for years. It had all that time leading to the finale to end all finales and, instead of delivering any of that, we just get another typical fantasy adventure that thinks too highly of itself.
[Originally posted on 5/28/19 @ Medium.com]