Game of Thrones Is Not What It Once Was

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Cersei and Jaime. Photo: HBO

I almost pity Game of Thrones at this point — to the extent that one can pity pay cable’s most popular and expensive series. Never before has an ongoing hit found itself in quite this predicament, trying to will its own unique ending to an as-yet-unfinished series of novels that provided source material for years, satisfying people who had serious issues with what came before while alienating those who preferred things the way they used to be. The penultimate season finale of creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s fantasy epic delivered all the doomy spectacle that fans craved and then some: the Night King (Vladimir Furdik) rode a reanimated dragon that once belonged to Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the beast’s blue fire erasing the Wall that once separated the humans of Westeros from the zombie hordes of the north. The image felt like a metaphor for what was being dramatically erased: our collective perception of what HBO’s Game of Thrones has always been.

Directed by veteran HBO helmer Jeremy Podeswa and written by Benioff and Weiss, the climax of “The Dragon and the Wolf” was one of many action sequences served up this season that was so awesome in its hugeness that it could have been scored with the sound of a cash-counting machine. Increasingly, the heart of every showstopper on Thrones is not any particular character moment (though it has never completely lost track of those — a feat that’s probably harder to manage than it sounds), but our realization that no expense has been spared to wow audiences. In sheer tactile fury, no current fantasy blockbuster playing in theaters can compete with what those last few minutes showed us, just as none could compete with the big battle sequences in prior episodes that showed dragons incinerating ground troops like F-16 fighters dropping napalm in a 1980s Vietnam picture. Each subsequent episode this year has felt like a giddy escalation of what came before. And many of the big twists — notably the death and resurrection of one of Daenerys’s dragons, the killing of several major characters (including Aidan Gillen’s Petyr Baelish, killed with the very dagger he’d used in earlier plots against the Starks), and the blooming love story between Daenerys and the resurrected Jon Snow (Kit Harington) — had a similarly blatant crowd-pleasing or crowd-horrifying quality, as if they’d been calculated for maximum social-media chatter on Sunday night and Monday morning. Ratings are still sky-high, and the show is so engrossing and eminently discussable that when it’s premiering new episodes, it can feel as if it’s the only thing on TV.

At the same time, though, even the most loyal and affectionate viewers seem aware that something basic has changed and might never change back, and that it has everything to do with the fact that George R.R. Martin, who keeps swearing he’ll finish the books at some point, is not the show’s guiding light anymore. In the roughly two seasons since Martin’s influence faded and Benioff and Weiss took over, Thrones has become the most vivid and spectacular illustration of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” in TV history, correcting (and perhaps in some cases overcorrecting) for excesses and tics that irritated core parts of the audience while alienating those who liked things the way they were.

I’m not convinced that there was any way around this problem, if indeed it is a problem and not simply an illustration of what happens when a couple of showrunners who’ve been splitting the difference between a novelist’s vision and their own suddenly have to steer the boat without charts. It’s not just the basic story lines that become terra incognita, it’s the overall sensibility. It’s a different Game of Thrones now, one that’s interested in slightly different things than it was before, and barring a decision to shut things down until Martin could catch up — which was never going to happen, given the profits at stake — it’s hard to see how things could’ve gone any other way.

Among other critics, my colleague Jen Chaney has noted that the show has recently pulled back on two of its signature forms of spectacle: female nudity during consensual sex scenes and graphic images of rape. “It’s interesting and notable to see Game of Thrones going down this more delicate road,” she wrote, “which builds on the foundation put in place last season, when the show dialed back significantly on its objectification of women. At the time, I suggested that creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were attempting to course-correct in the wake of criticism over the depiction of Ramsay Bolton’s rape of Sansa Stark in season five and the much-debated Cersei rape scene in season four. This season further reinforces the sense that the writers and filmmakers are proceeding much more carefully and respectfully when it comes to sex.”

The show’s change of habit isn’t just confined to the sex scenes. The writing and direction feel cleaner and more purposeful than in earlier seasons, laser-focusing on what’s happening and why it’s happening, and downplaying the purplish sense of self-importance (as if we were watching King Lear or The Godfather but with zombies and dragons) that pushed Thrones to the edge of silliness much of the time, but that also made it feel more grand and special than other R-rated fantasy epics. The very long scene in “The Queen’s Justice” where Daenerys verbally spars with Jon about pledging loyalty, while Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) looks on and offers commentary, was one of the longest, uninterrupted, purely expository scenes in the show’s history, and one of the best directed (by Mark Mylod). Like other scenes of court intrigue and strategy in the post-Martin era, it has an uncluttered directness reminiscent of big-screen spectacles from the 1960s, specifically that subcategory of epics that were mostly about brilliant political figures having long conversations in high-ceilinged rooms: Becket, The Lion in Winter, Patton, and so on. (It seems significant that the show spends so much time in map rooms and poring over blueprints and charts now: As we near the end of the story, fans seem increasingly obsessed with clarifying where characters stand in the power rankings and predicting what will happen next, and how.)

But is this sort of scene really what the show’s legion of fans want, deep down? There’s been a lot of pushback against the show in the last couple of years, in pieces like Kate Dries’s Jezebel takedown (which argued that the show had become depopulated of major characters and had trouble figuring out how to put them in the same scene); Darshan Desai arguing at Geeks that the show lacked logic, narrative coherence, and believable character motivation; and many writers, including Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk and ScreenRant’s Alex Leadbeater, argued that the series had lost track of how long it takes to go places, becoming “a video-game map of fast travel teleports that bend to the narrative’s demands.”

There have also been complaints this year that the pacing feels off (it’s not really “off” — it’s an excellent example of a particular, somewhat different sort of epic screen storytelling — it’s just noticeably different); that the sadistic nastiness that once prompted horrified think pieces was a core part of the show’s artistic DNA, and is strangely missed now that it’s not there anymore; that certain filmmaking choices that might’ve been done in the name of getting to the point (such as intercutting the brief battle of Casterly Rock with Tyrion’s planning of it) sapped the show of visceral excitement that it would’ve shamelessly milked in earlier years. But there have also been gripes that the show is prizing spectacle over everything else, dumping truckloads of money into every frame to distract us from the fact that they’re just moving chess pieces around until they can figure out how to get to checkmate. There’s a bit of overlap between some complaints. Others seem to cancel each other out. (Just a few years ago, I remember hearing a lot of people complaining that the show was so wedded to linear storytelling, to the point of turning Martin’s books into a slideshow with actors and sets, that wasn’t taking enough narrative shortcuts — that there was no reason, for instance, to devote so much narrative real estate to Theon’s torture and mutilation over the course of many years while so many other important things were happening.)

What seems clear, though, is that Game of Thrones is not what it once was, and that even many diehards are somewhat depressed by that, even though they’re not going to stop watching.

I suspect that what we have here is a classic case of something being gained while something else is being lost — a situation that has no easy answer. What’s been gained in the post-Martin era is a cleaner, more direct kind of storytelling, a somewhat more modest, even understated vibe, and greater sensitivity to the concerns of some viewers. But much more has been lost. There no reason to mourn the end of the show’s casually sexist imagery, which undermined Thrones’ evident commitment to creating great, though not necessarily sympathetic, female characters. (It has been argued that such stuff was always more Weiss and Benioff and HBO’s problem than Martin’s; I haven’t read the novels and don’t plan to, so I have no dog in that hunt.) Nor should anyone miss the adolescent brand of fake-seriousness, which assumes that prolonged, loving depiction of sadistic violence is itself an innately serious artistic statement. The bigger problem is what has been lost in all the action this season: There’s a sense of narrative busyness for the sake of busyness this year that was never really an issue before.

The battle episodes seem motivated more by the desire to show off Thrones’ epic action chops, not so much to make sure that truly important story points get planted, tended, and harvested. And when a plot point doesn’t convince, it causes serious damage to the show’s credibility. Exhibit A was Daenerys’s army (with dragon) taking part in a battle that seemed impulsive and ill-considered, and exposing one of her “children” to harm. Exhibit B was Tyrion’s plan to kidnap a wight to convince Cersei that the threat of the White Walkers was real, a gambit that only got him and his allies part of the way toward their goal (Cersei, being Cersei, seems to want to leverage the threat to consolidate her own power at the end). By the last few minutes of Sunday’s finale, Thrones had all of its major characters where it wanted them to be, discussing the existential threat of the White Walkers and arguing about how, exactly, to deal with it. But the machinations that brought them there sometimes felt indistinguishable from ones you’d see in a big-budget fantasy movie that’s not nearly as intelligent or idiosyncratic as Thrones at its best.

I want to close here, however, with a thought that’s not meant to get Benioff and Weiss off the hook, even though it’s probably going to sound that way: Maybe it’s the White Walker threat itself that is killing the show, and perhaps it would’ve killed it eventually anyhow, whether the showrunners had fresh Martin novels to draw on or not. The story of a kingdom warring against itself while a greater threat gathers is one that’s been building steam since season one, and that’s Martin’s idea, not Weiss and Benioff’s. It’s a great story with a touch of a parable to it, and it seems more relevant now than ever before (see the news for details). But no matter how it plays out, the end result will be to retrospectively cast all of the feuds and double-crosses, tragedies and victories that came before as comparatively trivial. “None of this stuff matters compared to this new threat” is a good idea on paper, but given how much emotion we’ve invested in the stories of all these characters over the course of seven seasons, and how deeply invested we are in the humanity of even the worst of them, that might not be a sentiment that anyone, not even the hardiest of die-hard Thrones fans, wants to hear. It could be that no matter how we get to that ending, and whether it’s a happy one, a tragic-ironic one, or something in between, it will still disappoint us on some level, because it will constitute a negation of our interest as viewers, and even the most vocal boosters of Thrones know that the series is probably not equipped to make the sorts of nuanced philosophical statements required to satisfactorily deal with something like that. Casablanca taught us that the problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, and in a larger sense, it’s true. Maybe the deeper issue here isn’t any particular storytelling choice, but the fact that we’ve been staring at that hill of beans for seven years and can’t bear the thought of sweeping them aside.

Game of Thrones Is Not What It Once Was