Saturday, May 4, 2019

The Missing Part of the Map: Thoughts on Game of Thrones Season 8 at Halftime

Warning: While I try to be tactful about discussing plot info, if you're sensitive about spoilers, you might as well skip this one.

Now what?

I first experienced HBO's Game of Thrones around New Year's Day 2013, a few months ahead of the beginning of Season 3. My brothers and I had gotten Season 1 for our dad as a Christmas gift. My brother Eric was the only one of us who had watched it and figured, correctly, that it was exactly the sort of thing our medieval-fantasy-loving father would enjoy. He watched all ten episodes within a week. The next time we saw him they were discussing it animatedly. Their energy made me want to check it out when I had previously thought it just wasn't my thing.

By the end of the first episode, I had the unmistakeable feeling that this was definitely my thing. I had had the same feeling after watching "The Wedding of River Song" episode of Doctor Who, the "Walkabout" episode of LOST, and the "Pineapple Incident" episode of How I Met Your Mother. I had the whole thing watched in under 48 hours.

The breadth and scope appealed to me: seeing characters inhabiting far-flung corners of their world, a world with a lush history, deep mysteries, and magical secrets - characters with disparate plots fated to be drawn together. How could any property bear the weight of this many different characters and motivations and plans? How was it all going to come together? Importantly, I marveled, someday it was destined to be about zombies vs. dragons, and that could not be anything less than the utmost of awesomeness.

I had my first serious doubts toward the end of season four when a character who had been recently introduced, who I liked and who felt like a real mover and shaker as the grand design of the plot started to thicken, had his story abruptly finished by way of a smooshed head. I had been spoiled on King Robert and Lord Eddard's deaths. The Red Wedding shocked me but didn't feel over the line. The Purple Wedding felt like long-overdue justice. Now it just felt like the show was laying it on thick, making things worse and bleaker and more hopeless as it should start turning things around. But my shock and awe turned to understanding - there was a reason for all of this, and it made sense within a few episodes.

A few weeks ago I questioned whether Game of Thrones needs to be included on any credible list of greatest TV shows. It benefits greatly from being an adaptation of a very well-written book series, which, although bleak, is also thoughtful, complex, sophisticated, subtle, clever, robustly-drawn, and charming. George R.R. Martin's source material understands itself. Its witty characters are witty, its crafty characters are crafty, its romantic characters romantic. (And its cruel characters seem impossibly cruel... and impossibly numerous.) I'm not saying Martin is an infallible genius, I'm just saying he wrote a good thing.

Being an adaptation never stops movies from being considered great, but most adaptations at least know the complete content of what they're adapting - if they make changes or condensations they are reasoned ones.

Say you had to get to a place that was five miles east. There's a route to get there that's indirect and winding, but very scenic, very enjoyable. But the map is half-drawn when you set out on the trip. So with a compass, and the knowledge you're headed east, you barrel ahead, through untamed brush and crazy mudpits and over dangerous cliffs and such. You'll get there, but maybe you won't think as fondly of the time you spent getting there.

As the material from the books ran out, and the creators behind the show had to make original decisions - albeit ones informed by a general knowledge of how the story ends - the show has become a bit less charming, less sophisticated, less challenging. Decisions that I question as much as I did the outcome of the Viper-Mountain duel have piled up without as much narrative payoff to back them up, even as the plot has headed toward the officially sanctioned conclusion. The people who create the show were great adapters of George R.R. Martin's material, but it's generally agreed they don't have the same strength as originators. They spent all that time making Game of Thrones, but did they ever learn how to make Game of Thrones?

I don't have to cite too many examples. The first episode of this season felt like a webisode meant to catch us up on where everyone was. All the Stark actors, uniformly, mumble their lines in a post-traumatic hush that makes character-sense but isn't much fun to watch. Characters renowned for their wit and cunning suddenly have neither. A whole battle is fought with tactics seemingly designed to lose on purpose. We did get that zombie vs. dragon war and it was... fine, I guess.

The last thing that happens in the third episode is exactly the same as what happens at the end of LOST - not the part everyone thinks they remember, but still cribbed from a show whose ending is famously, if misguidedly complained about. (That's right, the LOST-defender has Logged On. Martin himself crowed in GoT's early days that they had a plan, a real ending, unlike LOST, and they wouldn't let you down - but enough about my pet cause... for now.)

The night Episode 8.3 aired, there was a funny thread on Twitter about, "What if MAD MEN had werewolves? Mostly it was about advertising but every so often the characters would bring up the werewolves. And then three episodes from the end, half the cast would be out fighting werewolves, and once it was over, Don shows up and reminds them they've got a big pitch meeting." Was the show flawed in how it handled this, or was it inherently fated to seem like an awkward fit? Sticking a subplot about ultimate, implacable evil into the background of a work about moral ambiguity,  political maneuvering and man's inhumanity to man was part of what made it so enticing from the beginning, but maybe it was a misstep.

Or maybe not. I applaud GoT's decision - the correct one, I think - to end the White Walker Invasion story before the actual "Game of Thrones" political one. The result of the battle with the Night King was never in doubt, but any number of variations on the outcome in the war against Cersei are on the table. Yes, they kind of squandered two episodes sitting and waiting for a battle, which means time management is not the creators' strong suit - but now they have three episodes in which anything could happen, even if there doesn't seem to be time for a lot of things to happen. These last three episodes have the potential to be the most interesting part of the series in years. Or it could just amount to one more battle where it really, really looks like the good guys are going to lose, and then don't.

I do think the final chapters of this story, as a TV series, are tainted by having to end with a nature fundamentally different from how it began. But it's not tainted beyond enjoyability, I don't think. I won't cast an early judgment against, and I won't push my enthusiasm too hard either, because I don't want to eat my words either way. I just want to register that I'm wary, and guarded, as I have been for much of the show's run now.

It doesn't have to be a binary - if it's not great it must be terrible - it could end up just being fine. Which ironically, seems like the worst option. I'm hoping there's some card yet to play that I - an admittedly easy viewer to fool - have overlooked in thinking about possible outcomes. If the only things that happen in these last three episodes amount to what we expected and nothing more, that feels like the biggest letdown of all.

Game of Thrones will always have been a very good show, but these next few weeks will determine if it is ultimately one of the greatest. No matter what happens, GoT feels fated to be one of those shows that will largely be remembered for how it ended, and what that looks like rests on the shoulders of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

Benioff and Weiss beware: the need to throw one last curve has sunk many a show in audiences' eyes, none moreso than my beloved LOST*. (Well, the Sopranos maybe... and How I Met Your Mother...)

But then again, maybe I'm just bitter because I'm doing so poorly in my office dead pool. Only 2 right so far! (How did I not see Dolorous Edd??)

In the meantime, I've finally started experiencing the books via audiobook. I'm halfway through the second. Hopefully someday, five or ten years from now, I'm clutching a copy of the final entry of the series and I get to learn how it really ends.

Ah, the good old days.
(If anyone's curious, my only bold prediction about the finale is that it involves a distant time jump - maybe years, maybe generations, as we see Westeros enjoy at least some modicum of lasting peace, and perhaps some rudimentary form of democracy.)

*The finale of LOST is underrated.


  1. For better or worse Scott, I think you're going to get your last big twist.
    With Ned Stark's unbending sense of honour, Jon Snow even existing just didn't click until we got the whole story. Then it confirmed everything we knew to be true about Ned.
    So how is it that Tywin Lannister, equally unbending on preserving his family's legacy, would connive to see Tyrion snuffed out? Tywin's last words say it all: "You're no son of mine"
    Even better are Tyrion's from season 1: "All dwarves are bastards in their father's eyes"
    I figure Bran has one more blast from the past origin story for us...

  2. A very interesting theory! Hadn't thought about that...