A little over two weeks ago HBO’s Game of Thrones concluded its 5th season. It was a very divisive season with an even more divisive conclusion; with a lot of folks I’ve talked to finding the season’s ending unsatisfying and alienating. Personally I found the entire season to be rife with problems though they weren’t necessarily unique to this season of Game of Thrones. More this season is just the time when the show’s many issues finally boiled over onto the surface, and I say that as a pretty dedicated fan. However, even though I know exactly what it is I found so problematic and distasteful about this season of HBO’s hit fantasy show I can’t help but feel a strange sense of reservation in my dislike and wondering if the problem really is Game of Thrones or if it’s more on my end as a viewer.
From the outset I want to make clear my biggest problems with this season aren’t the flurry of structural and pacing issues. I can easily break down the plethora of problems with this season in simple mechanical terms; various arcs and stories go nowhere and eat up huge amounts of the show’s time, there’s a ton of elements that are poorly explained or not explained at all, and there’s an overarching sense that this season was more of a holding pattern for things to come than a complete story. All of those things are bad but they aren’t what sour me so much to this season, that’s more rooted in issues of characterization.
A lot of this stems from the show’s depiction of Stannis Baratheon, my favorite character from the books. Now I realize that Game of Thrones has to make cuts as an adaptation but I’ve never been happy with how they adapted Stannis, especially given the creators’ very vocal dislike for the character. This season however kicked things up to 11, turning the character into both a child murderer and a military incompetent. What strikes me is that I don’t think this direction is terrible in theory. Stannis has always been defined as a tragic character, driven by the mistaken belief that he’s the only person who could conceivably save the world even when it’s been pretty clear from word one that’s not really the case.
The idea of him eventually sacrificing his daughter and essentially destroying himself in a desperate bid of a cause he was wrong about all along is actually perfectly matched with the tragic blindness of his character. In the show, however, so much of Stannis’ character has already been expunged like his motivation to protect the world trumping his desire for power or his genuine regret at killing his brother that the moment doesn’t have the same meaning it used. In the show, Stannis killing his daughter for essentially no reason just serves as part of the larger trend of the show making its villains as evil and 1 dimensional as possible while its heroes become 1 dimensionally good.
A lot of this paragraph is just going to end up book comparisons but it’s necessary to illustrate my point about Game of Thrones shifting gears to dehumanize its villains and canonize its heroes. In the books characters like Roose Bolton are actually afforded a lot of depth and personality, depicted as a character trapped by circumstances outside his making with a heavy emphasis on him bowing to the inevitable and still grieving over his first born son that his bastard Ramsay murdered. The same thing goes for the Sparrow movement, initially portrayed as fanatical but also devoted to protecting the common people against rape and murder. In the show however movement is redefined as violent and repressed bigots to remove any semblance of moral ambiguity from the story. The same extends to heroes like Danerys, in the books her story is meant as a critique of interventionist culture and the dangers of only considering immediately evident suffering. The cities she liberates from slavery either fall into mob rule or return to slavery and her actions bring down the wrath of the entire continent on her because she’s completely destroyed their economy. In the show all of that is removed in the name of making Danerys an unquestionably nobly character and in the process we’re actually left with a story that favors poorly thought through intervention to say nothing of a lot of troubling racial undertones given her status as white woman coming to “fix” the backwards foreign societies. All of this represents a deliberate shift in Game of Thrones’ fundamental approach to storytelling.
When the series started the emphasis was on the idea that aside from a handful of exceptions there weren’t any wholly good or bad characters, everyone did both moral and amoral actions and ultimately you gravitated most to the character that most reflected your own values. Now however the show has taken a stark, black and white approach to character dimensions, strictly defining the cast as either good or bad.
This is where I find myself most conflicted in my feelings because as much as I don’t like this simplification of the show it’s still a perfectly valid track for the show runners to take. I’m left wondering whether the show has gone downhill in this respect or simply changed from what I want the series to be. This is a much broader discussion than just Game of Thrones, in general a big part of being a critic is making a distinction between enjoying media for what it is vs. deriding it for what you’d rather it be. At the end of the day it’s an inalienable truth that storytellers don’t owe the audience any particular plot points or resolutions, that at the end of the day the ultimate deciding factor for any direction a story takes must lie with the storyteller not the audience. I do my best to stand by this and I can even think of some major examples where stories didn’t go the way I wanted and it didn’t turn me off the narrative. For instance Netflix’ Daredevil killed off all three of my favorite characters in the space of a single episode but I still thoroughly enjoy the show. So what is it about Game of Thrones that feels so alienating and egregious that I’m near the point of abandoning the show? In a nutshell it’s about how the show relates to the audience.
What bugs me isn’t that Game of Thrones is no longer the show I want it to be, it’s that the show actively looks down on any interpretation that doesn’t match up with its own. This is very similar to my problem with Man of Steel, another instance of a film that wasn’t the story I wanted it to be but more than that considered itself to be the soul correct interpretation of the material. In the case of Game of Thrones where this shines through the clearest is the dichotomy between Danerys and Stannis, which is why it took that episode to make me realize what had gone wrong with the show. As I mentioned the show runners have stated in interviews that they don’t like Stannis as a character and much prefer Danerys, despite this however Stannis has been garnering a pretty solid fan base culled both from book and show fans. Now in response to this the show runners could’ve tried to address people’s complaints that Dany has become a passive character or even try and give her a greater moral definition beyond her various empowerment phrases, but instead they decided to turn Stannis into an incompetent child murderer. That’s a response born of pettiness, frustration, and the philosophy that fans are too stupid to enjoy the show the way it’s “meant” to be enjoyed.
That more than anything is why this season is so supremely alienating, because it’s talking down to the audience. This is the season where the show stopped respecting the audience, started treating us like we couldn’t be trusted to figure things out or the make right choices. That’s why the shift towards stark morality over ethical ambiguity feels so deeply off-putting, it’s made to shackle audience engagement because the show thinks you’re stupid. It’s such a terrible decision because it sours the entire experience, forcing a disconnect between the audience and the material. What made Game of Thrones and so many other great stories so compelling and enduring is that they afford the viewer a sense of individuality in enjoying them, we each gravitate towards a different character, a different aspect of the story, how we relate to them is highly personal. When stories try to rob the viewers of that, forcing them into a cookie cutter response it forces the audience out of the story and leaves us with nothing to return to but tainted memories.