Wights and dragons and bears. Oh my indeed.
We could bother ourselves talking about this episode’s plot. We could, if we wanted. But then we’d need to acknowledge the absurdity of the to-catch-a-wight plan and its foundations of nonsense.
We could discuss the three moments in ten minutes where Jon Snow is saved from certain death at the last gasp – all occurring within five minutes of each other – but that would force us to discuss the lack of stakes in saving a character who has so much plot armour that a whole season can hinge on his resurrection.
We could talk about the sheer spectacle of another battle beyond the Wall, but this time upgraded with three dragons. And upgraded further with a dragon death. And further still with a dragon-wight. But then we’d be back where we’ve been all season, discussing spectacle over substance.
We could do these things. But why bother. It’s not like the show seems to bother.
I’m forever interested in how stories work. And why they sometimes work despite having no good reason to, and sometimes they don’t despite everything seeming to be in place on the surface. Because if a story works, then the audience cares. And to make an audience care about something that is not just fictional, but is completely make-believe, is magic in its purest form. To have real emotions due to a fiction.
It’s become clear that Game of Thrones is suffering now as an adaptation without source material. There are two indications of this.
The first is what we’ve known all along: the showrunners have been given endpoints for all the major characters from George R. R. Martin. Based on this, they’ve backtracked to where the books ended, and carved out storylines that lead them to – one assumes – a similar ending. And while this may be the case, and a logical way of plotting given the circumstances, it has also highlighted how much the writing, the plotting, the basic articulation of character motivations has suffered without the benefit of hundreds of pages of source material.
This much is clear in the Winterfell scenes. One can likely deduce that Littlefinger is heading toward a comeuppance. Put Bran and his mind palace in the same location as Littlefinger, and the catspaw blade, right near where he was nearly killed by the same blade under which was blamed on someone by that same Littlefinger in order to put the Starks at war with the Lannisters, and the truth will out. But we can’t go straight toward Littlefinger’s ousting, that wouldn’t be dynamic. So we make it seem as if he is still sowing seeds of chaos, turning conflict onto others around him, particularly those we’re sympathetic toward, and we end up with the nonsense going on at Winterfell this season.
Neither Arya’s nor Sansa’s actions in the last two episodes make sense. Not as direct responses by their characters to Littlefinger’s actions, or as intentional misdirection by the characters to deceive Littlefinger. They only make sense as clumsy writing designed to make us think Littlefinger is getting away with murder again, before he doesn’t. So the conflict between Sansa and Arya doesn’t actually live in the characters of Sansa and Arya, which means the audience doesn’t believe it, which means it’s terrible to watch.
There are examples of this all of the season, and all over ‘Beyond the Wall’. Sandor Clegane getting on a boat with the wight to go south to King’s Landing, so that he can confront his brother (who is probably also a kind of wight?) is an ending they want. So he says goodbye to Beric Dondarrion and Tormund because they’re not coming along because why exactly? None of this fits the mouldings of the characters prior to this moment, but that doesn’t matter when we need the character to end up somewhere else.
It’s not so much table-setting for Season 8 as it is chucking shit in the air and hoping it lands somewhere near the table.
The second indication that the show is suffering by not having book material to draw on is something that has been niggling away in the background, ever since Tyrion joined up with Daenerys way back when in Meereen.
The simple thing is, Game of Thrones is better when the characters are apart.
The novels rely on limited character point-of-view. This leads us to jumping all around a large story while only getting small sections of it at a time. The big picture is constantly elusive, because we are always the man or woman on the ground, struggling against their own limitations.
This provided the unstructured, snippety form for Game of Thrones for much of the first three seasons, until it settled into a rhythm of favouring certain storylines over others to give them room to breathe in Seasons 4 and 5. But this went out the window as soon as the showrunners started colliding major characters together (which is an inevitability for the books, but bear with me), and audiences got all excited over seeing actors in the same room as one another.
It’s the Avengers effect. Wow audiences with the thrill of seeing that guy with that guy and that other guy (and probably one girl somewhere) to distract from the fact that the story machinations are rubbish. Nobody cares how they get there so long as they get there and we can have fun with them. Witness how much time in this episode is given over to nonsense conversations between Tormund and Clegane, Jorah and Jon, Tormund and Gendry, Thoros and Jorah. Characters we’ve never seen onscreen before but now we can just have some fun with their personalities.
Great, but shame about the story.
Game of Thrones built its plot on limited point of view. Nedd’s execution worked because it was given to us from a single point of view (Arya), who had no objectivity. The Red Wedding works in the books because, again, we are limited to Catelyn’s point of view, and before too late she realises things are in motion beyond her control. This is why these moments registered so shockingly to viewers in their adapted form: the limited perspective meant we didn’t heed the warnings as easily as we might, if we just sat back and objectively watched the spectacle.
But now even minor players like Thoros have their deaths signposted early, in such a typical, true-to-TV way with recollections of past deeds and self-deprecatory moments. All the other characters are seemingly alive because they need to be next season.
Limiting the audience’s perspective on characters leads to tension, which leads to surprise, and then tragic weddings and beheadings. The show could do well next season (because nobody of sympathetic note will cark it next week) to pit the good guys against one another early on. This will isolate them, and place the viewers into a position of having to once again see the story through one person’s eyes at a time.
The rest of the episode is just lazy plotting.
We need to raise the stakes on everybody’s life? Kill the resurrecty-priest Thoros. But it can’t be too obvious so have people try to stop the bear from mauling him, but only the people with dragonglass or valyrian steel come in at the end after the bear’s done it’s damage.
(Also, why was the bear-wight so far out? Scouting? Or just rampant? The wights seem to go where the White Walkers are, so this doesn’t make sense, unless it’s just because it’s a cool way to launch a surprise attack on the small group and good lord I just don’t know anymore.)
Need to make sure we have a guy to make weapons that can kill wights next season? Find him last episode, and then get him out of danger this episode so that he’s still around next year to do the actual plot stuff we need him for.
(On that note, why, when they had just captured the wight they needed, did they not run in the same direction as Gendry when he went to send for a raven? Wouldn’t he be taking the most direct route back to Eastwatch? Maybe it was to distract the army of the dead from him but that makes no sense either because they came north for the wight, not for Gendry to send a raven.)
Need to have a moment between Jon and his long lost uncle Benjen before Jon gets into final plot movements next season and we can’t bring Benjen back again? Have him ride in, hand over a horse, and say there’s no time for more talk before he dies.
And, of course, need to make Jon and Daenerys fall for each other and probably make a baby so that this revelation of their familial relationship can be a bad thing and be the catalyst for whatever ending is in store? Then just do that, without worrying about any logic or anything else behind it.
And, most importantly, have the revelation that Jon is officially a Targaryen be discovered by a character who isn’t aware of the significance. This is terrible plotting, because the audience knows the significance and now we need to sit through time waiting for the characters to get on the same page. Compare this to the action-driven moment when Bran discovers Jon is Lyanna’s son last season: brought on by the actual events in the story, and cutting right to a close-up of Jon. The character learns it, we learn it, we feel the moment there and then.
When Sam no doubt catches up with Bran next week and they put the pieces together about Jon, it will be a medieval-flavoured version of this scene:
The audience can know more than the characters, but don’t make the characters stupid as a result.
The showrunners are acting like Benjen this season. They know they need to be there to tell this story, so they show up in a hail of fire and surprise, wow everyone with theatrics, but when asked to explain what is going on:
‘There’s no time.’
No time to bother with character motivations. No time to bother with character consistency. No time to bother with knowing whose story they are telling and what is the best way into the story. And no time at all to care about story mechanics.
Does this story look good? Of course it does.
Does it work?
Game of Thrones is now akin to Zack Snyder’s films. A story crafted out of moments, without any care or understanding of the causal relationship between one scene and another, between one storyline and another.
This is understandable when you have Game of Thrones constructing its current existence out of moments given to them by the original author. But moments don’t make a story.
And then I don’t really care that a dragon died in a made-up story.