Thursday, May 23, 2019

Game Theory

"It never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened," quotes Aaron Bady in his review of "The Last of the Starks", the fourth episode of the just-concluded eighth and final season of Game of Thrones. Aaron--whose reviews this season, alongside Sarah Mesle and Philip Maciak, have remained the gold standard for talking about this much-talked-about show--is referring to the battle against the army of the dead in the previous episode, whose fallen are eulogized in "Last"'s opening scene. "This is why the show needed those fiery pyres and a big speech from Jon about how no one will ever forget; otherwise, we might notice and be shocked that it didn't matter, that everyone is going to forget, and that it never happened." But in a way that he might not even have realized at the time, he is also articulating the approach of the entire season. Rather than tying off and concluding its storylines, in its final season Game of Thrones furiously goes about unmaking them, and finally, itself.

It's not just that the battle against the army of the dead barely comes up after it's won. It's how little any of that storyline ends up mattering. The identify of the Night King, the meaning of the grisly bits of environmental art he kept leaving for our heroes, the role of Essos and Westeros's warring religions and the prophecies that seemed to involve our heroes, whatever it was that the dead actually wanted--all are forgotten as soon as Arya plunges her dagger in and wins the day. And after that first unmaking, others follow with increasing speed and urgency. Jon Snow's parentage, speculated about by fans for years, confirmed two seasons ago, revealed to the world at the end of last season, ends up playing absolutely no role in where his or Westeros's story end up. Sansa, Daenerys, Varys, and Tyrion play subtle chess games against one another when they each learn Jon's identity, and it all ends up meaning nothing as far as the nation's final disposition is concerned. Daenerys razes King's Landing to the ground, and the next week there's enough of the city left for the characters to occupy and squabble over.

In the season's final episode, each scene seems to cancel out the one before it. Daenerys is a demonic dark lord, surveying her troops like something out of a Leni Riefenstahl movie and regarding her acts of destruction with manic glee, promising to burn down the whole world, so powerful that no one can imagine how to stop her. No, wait, now she's dead. The Dothraki and the Unsullied are fearsome, dark-skinned Others, fanatically loyal to Daenerys and an enormous problem for Westeros even without her. No, wait, they have inexplicably allowed Jon and Tyrion to live for weeks after Daenerys's death, waiting politely for Westeros's surviving lords to gather for a conference to decide its fate. But now Grey Worm insists on Jon facing justice for his betrayal of Daenerys! No, wait, he just wants the Westerosi nobles--a group of people he neither trusts nor respects--to give Jon a trial, after which both armies meekly pile back on their ships and sail off, never to trouble the continent again. But Jon is to spend the rest of his life at the Wall! No, wait, he just fucks off with the wildlings, which no one tries to stop him from doing because no one seems to care.

Perhaps the most profound expression of how much Game of Thrones wants to undo itself is the fact that it allows Tyrion to set the terms of its ending. For three seasons, we've been watching Tyrion repeatedly faceplant due to his tendency to spin convoluted, oh-so-clever plans that don't survive their first contact with reality. For three seasons, one character after another has berated him for buying into the myth of his own cleverness and inevitably outsmarting himself. What, then, are we to make of the fact that the conclusion--the solution, apparently--to Westeros's wars of succession is yet another Tyrion Lannister special? Hey, you know what system of government is super-stable, guaranteed never to lead to succession squabbles or civil wars? Elective monarchy!

The final scene of Game of Thrones, in which Tyrion presides over a meeting of the Small Council featuring all our favorite secondary characters, is meant to convey a hard-won peace.  But really it feels like an act of gaslighting, the ultimate negation of change. The wheel has turned, and somehow, despite all the talk of revolution, despite all the upheaval and destruction, despite all the promises of apocalypse and transformation, we've ended up right where we started. Sure, there are some cosmetic changes--Bran is king now, because why the hell not; the Stark children have grown and are each doing their own thing; a bunch of cities have been burned to ashes. The players have changed, but the game remains essentially the same. All the drama of the last eight seasons and nine years? It will shock you how much it never happened.

You can choose to take this as a pointed criticism of monarchy, of the fantasy genre and its obsession with prophesied rulers, of the promise of heroes who will remake the world into something better if only we give them absolute power over it and us. The fact that nothing has changed is the point, you see, because true change can't come from within the system, man. And look, I have often--quite recently, in fact--taken pleasure in the pastime of ascribing to Game of Thrones a level of complexity and subversiveness it obviously didn't possess. But this time, I don't buy it.  The show's conclusion lacks the darkness and richness of its more tantalizing moments, when you could convince yourself that there was something more going on than just what appeared on the surface. On the contrary, there's something desperately earnest about it. Or just plain desperate, the writers putting more and more speeches in Tyrion's mouth as if trying to convince the audience sitting at home rather than their other characters.  By the time Tyrion starts going on about stories, there's no way to avoid admitting that we're meant to be taking this all at face value. There's a palpable sense of flop sweat about that final turn, as if the writers had only now realized--after eight seasons, seventy-three episodes, and countless storylines, locations, and characters--that they have no idea what their story was about. So then, let it be about stories--that solves the problem, doesn't it?

"Who has a better story than Bran?" Tyrion asks, in brazen defiance of the fact that at least half a dozen characters sharing the scene with him, not to mention himself, could answer that question in the affirmative. But in this new Game of Thrones, a show that has devoured itself in order to avoid acknowledging that it was only ever about itself, this retcon is necessary. We have to believe that the character with the least interesting story actually has the best one, because to take any other character as our focal point would require a much more dramatic, meaningful ending than the show is capable of delivering. Even Tyrion himself--whom the show dusts off as its mover and shaker and point of view character, as he hasn't been since the end of season four--ends up getting written out of the official history of the most important events in his life. The future belongs to the Brans--all-knowing, personality-free cyphers who only a few seasons ago were convincingly described as effectively dead, and definitely no longer human.

I'm coming off as mocking--because there is, quite frankly, a great deal to mock here. But the truth is, I don't want to complain about how bad Game of Thrones has gotten or how silly its ending was. What would be the point? I've been complaining about Game of Thrones since before there was a Game of Thrones (that review is not my favorite piece of writing, but boy, did I nail the core problem with the series's story). I've complained about its sexism.  I've complained about its violence.  I've complained about the unearned prestige being granted to what was clearly little more than a well-made soap opera. We all complained about those things. And then we kept watching all the way to the end. If the series's end has embodied all the flaws we spent nine years complaining about--if it features a beloved female character expressing the opinion that having been raped has made her a badass; if it paints a wannabe revolutionary as a murderous fanatic who wants to kill the world in order to save it; if it uses people of color as scary, ravening hordes of merciless killers; most of all, if it fails to end in a way that puts a satisfying, decisive cap on its story, instead taking us back to its starting point--well, who's to blame here, really? The show, for being exactly what it always was? Or us, for pretending that it would change at the very last minute?

Over the last few weeks, we've seen the rise of a cottage industry in twitter threads and thinkpieces seeking to explain "why Game of Thrones sucks now". We've had plotters vs. pantsers, sociological vs. psychological, and that age-old standby, "it all went to pieces when they ran out of books!" I don't want to be the glib cynic who responds to these kinds of analyses with a great cry of "you idiots, it always sucked!" But I do think that a lot of them miss what Game of Thrones was, and mistake it for something it wasn't. This was never a story that was going to end well because it was never a story designed to end at all. The true refutation of epic fantasy tropes that, we kept being told, was what made this story brilliant would have been in letting it go on forever, constantly churning through characters and settings, constantly throwing up new dynasties only to topple them, constantly pulling our favorites out of danger only to plunge them back into it, constantly pointing at fresh-faced new heroes only to have them fail and reveal themselves as ordinarily human.

But of course, it couldn't do that. And so, with a pair of showrunners whose work was never as clever or as deep as they seemed to believe, and who were clearly itching to be done, we got an ending that was rushed, half-assed, and prone to the series's worst and ugliest failings, especially where female characters were concerned. (How often did women talk to one another in Game of Thrones's last two seasons? How much worse do those numbers get when you exclude Arya and Sansa's misbegotten fight storyline from season seven?) I'm not saying it couldn't have been done better. But I don't think there's a version of this show that ends in the way that fans wanted and expected it to, with a grand climax that ties together all the show's storylines and themes into a satisfying and transformative crescendo. This was never that sort of story.

No, instead of wondering why we're all so disappointed in what Game of Thrones has become, shouldn't we be wondering why we liked it in the first place?  Why did those of us who recognized the show's problems from day zero continue following it so obsessively?  What were we getting out of it?  This feels like an important question, especially now that the show is over.  Because I guarantee you that in the dozens of writers' rooms where, right now, teams of extremely talented people are trying to create the next Game of Thrones, it is being pondered and, if we're to go by past experience, exactly the wrong lessons are being learned. Remember when the Lost fandom was at the peak of its frustration with the show's endlessly proliferating mysteries, and every wannabe clone tried to sell itself by promising that it had an airtight multiseason plan all worked out from the get-go? And then all those shows flopped like the airless, over-designed slogs they were?  Imagine that, but with dragons and cod-medieval fantasy worlds.

It's not as if there haven't been other fantasy shows running before or alongside Game of Thrones.  It's not as if there haven't been multithreaded historical dramas with rich, charismatic characters operating within a complex geopolitical landscape.  It's not as if there haven't been shows like Game of Thrones that were better, smarter, more tightly-plotted, more interesting.  Some of these shows have been successful, but none of them were Game of Thrones.  I would argue that the reason for that is exactly the thing so many people are now identifying as bad writing, the thing that writers trying to making lightning strike twice are now streamlining out of their proposals and pitches.  The shapelessness of the show's overarching plot, the looseness of its pacing, that frustrating tendency to compound entities instead of converging on a narrative. These all left space for fans to argue with the show and complain about it, to claim the world and its characters as our own in the face of writers who clearly didn't know what to do with them. We loved arguing with Game of Thrones. We loved complaining about it. We loved that alongside its top-notch production values, complex characters, and a cast who could pull off anything asked of them, it was so obviously, stupidly wrong about so many things, from medieval norms and customs to battle tactics to how women think, act, and behave towards one another. We loved that we could spend hours debating and discussing it and not get treated like hopeless nerds, because everyone else was doing it too.  We never really wanted it to end.

So farewell, Game of Thrones. We shall not see your like again, despite HBO's multiple planned prequels and spinoffs and Amazon's forthcoming Lord of the Rings show and whatever else anyone tries to recapture your magic with. That combination of tremendous skill and utter, bone-deep stupidity isn't the sort of thing you can produce by demand.  More than a show or a story, Game of Thrones was a glorious mistake--a half-finished (and probably never to be finished) series of books with a flaw baked into it so obvious that people were pointing it out decades ago, handed to writers without the skill, or even the desire, to make that story their own, that through a bizarre alchemy hit the absolute perfect sweet spot between frustrating and engrossing.  That sort of accident doesn't come along too often.  So thanks for giving us something to argue about.

11 comments:

Retlawyen said...

I...uh, I really liked it? The main message turning out to be Mencken's famous line about defending scoundrels struck me as really timely. The wheel is, of course, made of people promising to break it. Her 'break the wheel' is just a thousand year Reich.

Tyrion whining that, you know, the public crucifixions and immolation of prisoners are only for the real counterrevolutionaries, and he has some serious concerns about the due process that we are using for our call outs, was, like, *chef kiss*.

I like to imagine (there is, of course, zero support for this) that Bran's ending is like a Shogun style deal, where the person who insists on how disinterested he is has been maneuvering for this all along once he became magic. Take the 'why did you think I came all this way' energy and pump it up to 9000. The winner of the Game Of Thrones is the guy who is peeking at everyone's cards.

I strongly agree re: People trying to figure out what went wrong are barking up the wrong tree, the mystery being why this wasn't the reception from the start.

Unknown said...

Yeah, Game of Thrones. Working out what it's deal was seems to have taken up as much intellectual effort amongst fans and critics as making the damn thing.

I think if they'd broken up the seven kingdoms at the end, that would have worked as a suitably Game of Thronesian ending.

The Targaryen's are gone, the noble class is devastated, the capital is devastated, everyone's armies have been devastated, the economy is (probably?) devastated. The Seven Kingdoms is now a failed state. King's Landing probably has a difficult time projecting power much beyond spitting distance of it's own walls at this point, so they're not going to be able to do much to stop notably ornery places like the North, the Iron Islands and Dorne breaking away. They even physically destroyed the iron throne, so I thought that's what they were going to go with. The idea that the fighting over the iron throne ended up so out of control and so destructive to the social fabric of westeros that the insitution of the iron throne itself didn't survivie it? Well, it would have worked for me I guess. It would have had that "you didn't think what you were doing all the way through and now look what's happened" vibe that the best Game of Thrones plot beats have.

Wouldn't have made up for the dross of the past two seasons (and more than a few bits of previous seasons besides), but still.

This concept is also the kernal of the story of the Dance of the Dragon's in the show/book's backstory where a Targaryen civil war over sucession ends up costing House Targeyen its powerbase, and the lives of both the claimants. There was half-hour animated narration of it on one of the blue rays and came across as basically a shorter, tighter plotted and generally better version of the main story. So this may be what George is aiming at.

Instead we got Tyrion looking directly into the camera and delivering an Inpsiring Speech which Convinces the Lords of Westeros To Put Aside Their Differences And Do What's Right in a way they have shown zero inclination to do up until now, so they can put Bran (??????) on the Throne, which is basically the work of a madman.

I don't agree that Game of Thrones is essentially an unendable story, not least because Martin claims to have had the ending in mind from the very start, though I do agree that his habit of endlessly, fractally adding characters and new subplots may have turned it into one. I also don't agree that the bad ending we got is to do with the nature of the story or x vs y or anything like that, I don't think you need to look much further than D&D being bad at their jobs for that one.

- Tim Ward

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Retlawyen:

Like I said, you can absolutely choose to read the ending as deeply cynical, but I really don't see any way to argue that it's the reading the show intends. I think we are meant to believe that this is a new step in Westeros's evolution towards a more benevolent, more egalitarian society, that Bran will be a uniquely good king, and that the new system of government will ensure peace and stability. The fact that we're all assuming that bloodshed and chaos will start again as soon as the credits finish running makes the show seem more interesting, but as with so many other examples, that's an unearned complexity.

Tim:

I don't agree that Game of Thrones is essentially an unendable story, not least because Martin claims to have had the ending in mind from the very start

I'm sure he had an ending in mind, but the fact that he hasn't been able to get there suggests that it isn't as easy as that claim implies.

Unknown said...

Abigail:

The books are vastly more complex from a plot perspective than the show, though. There are, I think, 5 major plot threads that the show has either truncated or outright ditched, all interconnected. There's an entire extra Targaryen in the books. Plus, the show is quite happy to simply ignore the chronological etc issues caused by even its reduced set of intertwined characters and subplots, unlike Martin.

Guess we won't find out for at least another decade, though.

- Tim Ward

Brett said...

I don't think the story could have gone on forever, or was meant to. Even in the better seasons when it felt more consistent, when the storylines felt much more driven by character development than the showrunners' desire to finish it off so they could go make "Confederate" (and later Star Wars), it was always aimed at the "pay-off" for that season - typically the penultimate episode. It's precisely because the pay-off for the season and series as a whole feels so unearned and unmoored from what came before that it's finally lost the goodwill of a vocal minority of fans (and a large number of critics).

But I think if we knew that the series-whole pay-off was never going to arrive, it never would have gotten any breaks in the first place for its flaws. It would have just felt meaningless after a while, like how most of the political strife in the books is supposed to feel like dangerous squabbling and brutality while a much larger disaster looms.

Greg Sanders said...

Hm.. I'm more hopeful for the books than the next round of TV. I'd agree it's obviously been harder than Martin originally thought, but the ending Steven Attewell speculates about seems solid enough to me. I think Attewell is correct that Martin isn't a nihilist and is a romantic, I don't think that means a tropey heroic fantasy ending, but I do think that if it ends strong, the strength of that ending won't be the way it subvert tropes so much as its true to its characters and some of the messiness of real world hard won victories.

If anything, I think the show ending enhances the likelihood of the book ending, as it's limitation are likely a powerful motivator, as long as Martin doesn't bother with trying to confound fan speculation or worry himself with spoilers or trying to satisfy every expectation. I think even the best plausible book ending will be disappointing to many, but people want different things from it, so that's inevitable.

I wouldn't say I'm confident in this, just that I've allowed myself hope. There's a lot more freedom in writing a book series than a show. You aren't as beholden to your set of actors, your budget is about writing time not special effects, and you don't need permission of any committees. Fan culture has often made this worse I think, and that's worth pondering about, but Martin's independently wealthy at this point, if anyone can do what they want with their story in their remaining time on earth, it's him.

Sometimes old standbys are true and sometimes some old tropes can fit in an ending that sticks the landing. Will it be a phenomenon? Who knows, probably unlikely, but as someone that has just been following the show via synopsis since like season 2 or 3 or so, but more recently reread a Feast for Crows and read a Dance of Dragons, I've got a set of expectations that I think are a lot easier to address or satisfyingly defy.




Greg Sanders said...

(Though I suppose I should add that there is one particular sacrificial possibility that Attewell has raised that I just as soon Martin take the Final Fantasy X approach to, which would be subversive but in a non-nihilist way.)

Andrew Stevens said...

Jon did what his father didn't, but should have - removed a family member from power for the good of the realm. Daenerys was always a villain. Her plan was no different from her older brother's. Viserys was just more self-aware and realized he was a villain. Jon's superior claim also shows how empty Daenerys's "rightful queen" bit always was. When she learned about it, she did not yield to Jon and swear to serve him because that never was her real motivation.

Unknown said...

I have to say it was kind of galling, and yet typical of the show's later seasons, that the final episode in had no interest in *why* Dany burned King's Landing. Neither Tyrion nor Jon ask her directly, and when they confront her about what she did she just kind of makes an actor face and provides no real explanation of her motives. And yet it's kind of important in, you know, Jon Snow's decision to kill her.

- Tim Ward

Dubble G said...

Thank you, a delightful and heartfelt read. It's an interesting thought, that its weaknesses as a narrative (or cluster of narratives) were its strength as an entertainment product. I can't speak for any others, but the attraction for me was twofold: First, the joy of the watching experience itself, just listening to these characters bounce off one another, and second, the hint that George RR Martin (if not the show) had some message he wished to make by "subverting expectations", some coherent and cogent point to make about hero-worship and the use of power. In the end, I found it a bit like watching Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy--it asked a lot of Important-sounding Questions, and then gave us completely silly answers.

I've written my own thoughts on the message of the show, and in particular the ending on my own blogspot. There's no earthly reason why you should, but I'd be delighted if you'd give them a read anyway:
On the ending
https://one-way-mirror.blogspot.com/2019/05/game-of-thrones-aragorns-tax-policy.html
On the message
https://one-way-mirror.blogspot.com/2019/05/game-of-thrones.html

Joe Y said...

Brilliant article, Abigail. Not just because I'm in complete agreement that Game of Thrones is a well made soap opera and nothing more. It's just a fantastic piece of writing.

This part stood out to me though: "It's not as if there haven't been other fantasy shows running before or alongside Game of Thrones. It's not as if there haven't been multithreaded historical dramas with rich, charismatic characters operating within a complex geopolitical landscape. It's not as if there haven't been shows like Game of Thrones that were better, smarter, more tightly-plotted, more interesting. "

Do you have any recommendations for great fantasy shows, or shows like Game of Thrones, but done better? I've been looking for great fantasy shows, and I haven't been able to find any.

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