When I started watching Game of Thrones, it hooked me because it was unlike anything I’d seen before. Not because it was big and epic and expensive (though it was), but because it was so wonderfully immune to the worst tropes of epic fantasy.
A disclaimer: fantasy is amazing, and I like it. But it was and is the genre that is most attached to its conventions, and epic fantasy is the worst offender. Not much has changed since J.R.R. Tolkien set the standard with The Lord of the Rings. Yes, okay, the sub-genre has seen its characters get a bit more morally ambiguous and has watched its MPAA rating go from PG to something like NC-17, but that’s not a lot to show for half a century. Epic fantasy still tends to feature some variation on the quest, the hero, the rag-tag team, and–most frustratingly–the One Big Thing that must be fixed to solve it all.
Martin isn’t fully immune to this, and he’s clearly working within this big-epic-series-with-a-world-map-at-the-beginning subgenre. But he uses epic fantasy’s medieval flavor to adjust the rules in a very fundamental way. The Dark Ages are set dressing in most fantasy epics, but Martin uses them for more than swords and shields and the occasional look-how-gritty-I-am torture scenes. Martin’s blood-and-guts scenes and morally ambiguous characters are bound together by a sense of–for lack of a better word–realism.
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The 'Golden Age' of Game of Thrones
Martin made his series unfair in the way that life is, rather than the way that fantasy series are. In The Lord of the Rings, key characters could be counted upon to survive, except for one guy in the first book who Sean Bean played on screen. Except for the Sean Bean thing, this wasn’t the case in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. Martin’s medieval setting isn’t just an excuse for violence–it’s a part of the plot, as amoral fate ignores justice and, sometimes, even opportunities for drama.
In its prime seasons, Game of Thrones played out like a medieval history book (only, you know, with dragons). Politics moved fast and armies moved slow and people needed to work hard to acquire armies and boats (but not dragons, those seem to be a hereditary thing). People were separated for decades, and they didn’t get to reunite just because they were nice and deserved it. They didn’t even get to live because they were nice and deserved it. They died cruelly and unfairly and without regard for their likeability or their apparent importance: The show didn’t mind offing perhaps its most prominent character (Ned Stark) at the end of the first season, split his family, and went on to kill off one major character after another. Game of Thrones doled out death sentences with (almost) total disregard regard for plot armor (that mysterious protection that seems to surround characters that the plot needs). That disregard kept the plot thrilling and ever-changing. Even A-list protagonists (Robb Stark) and A-list villains (Joffrey Baratheon) weren’t safe.
When Game of Thrones was at its best, nothing ever happened just because you wanted it to happen, or because it would be fair, or even because it would be cool. The show was stingy with near-death experiences–death usually finished the job–and for all its killing, Game of Thrones reliably refused to assign the executioners that viewers wanted or expected. King Joffrey executed Ned Stark, made Sansa Stark’s life miserable, and waged a war with Robb Stark and Catelyn Stark that didn’t end well for the Northerners. He was on Arya Stark’s to-kill list, so naturally he was offed by … Olenna Tyrell. At its peak, Game of Thrones wasn’t much for catharsis.
Thrones Without Martin
It’s time for a confession: I underrated George R.R. Martin. I viewed the father of one of my favorite shows in the way that the deists viewed God, as if he’d set something in motion and then let it play out. I thought the concept was genius, and the rest easy. But as the show has moved past Martin’s text, it’s become clear that it takes the utmost care to tell a story that stays faithful to Martin’s premise.
Now sans-Martin (the show will end in more or less the same way as the books, but will take a different path to get there now that it’s ahead of Martin’s own writing, and Martin is no longer writing episodes for the series), the new Game of Thrones looks the same but feels very different. People and armies can now move as fast as is convenient for the writers. Important characters can run straight at dragons and survive (they will be pushed into a lake in heavy metal armor, but they need not fear, as they’ll survive this, too; plot armor, evidently, floats). Good people get to meet their siblings again, because they deserve it, and so do we. Game of Thrones now gives us more of what we want, and is willing to bend the rules to get it.
No episode is less Martin-esque than the sixth of this season, Beyond the Wall. Jon Snow–at the head of a rag-tag team of good guys–bags a White Walker, but is ambushed. But Beyond the Wall provides Jon with an unlikely series of lucky breaks (one of his companions gets away to warn Daenerys, then the White Walkers fall through the ice and create a convenient moat, and then Daenerys shows up in record time). Then Jon falls through the ice, but he gets out later by using his sword as a pickaxe (remember, kids, if you fall through frozen ice, you want to be holding a heavy sword–this helps). For good measure, Game of Thrones pretends to kill Jon Snow again (White Walker attack) and Deus Ex Machina’s him outta there again (remember Uncle Benji? He’s back to sacrifice himself).
Jon Snow survives, but Game of Thrones’ uniqueness doesn’t. While on the frozen lake, Jon and his band establish that White Walkers die when the Walkers that turned them die–sort of like an undead pyramid scheme. Kill the Night King, and they all go. Rag-tag team, meet your One Big Thing.
We don’t know where A Song of Ice and Fire will go. Maybe it, too, will announce that all the White Walkers die at once if the good guys destroy the ring, er, kill the Night King. But this solution seems very unlike Martin. I hope A Song of Ice and Fire remains a document of cruel fantasy realism – the way Game of Thrones used to be.
In Game of Thrones, things now happen because we want them to happen, or because they’re fair, or because they’re cool. And the things in question are cool. It’s cool when the Stark sisters turn a death sentence into a dramatic reveal and on-the-spot throat slashing. It’s very cool – too cool to be conflicted or gloomy or tinged with the memory of Ned Stark’s capital punishment scene in the pilot all those years ago. Game of Thrones is cool, maybe even cooler than it’s ever been. But it’s not great anymore, because it needed George R.R. Martin for that.
Featured still from "Game of Thrones" via HBO