Reflections on Game of Thrones

(Warning: Here be spoilers!)

Last week was the series finale for Game of Thrones, a series I’d been watching from the very beginning.  Indeed, I first discovered George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books way back in 2002.

I still remember seeing the first book in the store, with the cover advertising it as the first in a trilogy, looking at the shelf and seeing two more books in the series, and thinking I was safe in buying that first book, since whole series was published.  If only I’d known.

I poured through that first book, astonished at the gritty and stark world and the characters Martin had created.  I remember being stunned at Ned Stark’s death.  I finished the first book and immediately picked up the second and third books.

The second book stated it was the second of four books.  Uh oh.  And the third that it was the third of five.  Dammit!  I was annoyed, particularly with the length of the third book, which felt a bit bloated, until I got to the Red Wedding, and Tyrion’s escape from King’s Landing, events which left me gnawing on my soul.

I looked for the fourth book, eventually finding Martin’s web site at the time, which had a crotchety message that he hadn’t finished the next book yet, and asking people to please stop emailing him about it.

Annoyed again, but still hungry for more, I discovered the galaxy of fan sites.  For the next several months I haunted those sites, reading about fan theories, many of which eventually turned out to be accurate.  (When HBO producers approached Martin to make a TV series, they stated they were big fans.  Martin asked them to prove it by telling him who Jon Snow’s mother was.  It was something the internet had figured out years earlier.  The producers knew the answer.)

But it would be three years (2005) before Martin finally produced the fourth book.  While still intrigued, my fever for the series had dissipated, and I decided to hold off reading the fourth book until he had finished the series, which was now forecast to be six books.  Surely he’d have them finished in a few years?

Of course, anyone familiar with this story knows the fifth book didn’t come until 2011, by which time the first season of the TV show was imminent.  I never would have guessed that the show would pass by the books and finish well before them.

Martin seems to have let the tale sprawl into so many settings and characters, that it’s become extremely difficult to move it forward, much less bring it to completion.  Of course, the show has done it, but to widespread criticism that the final seasons felt rushed and, while obviously still showing Martin’s touch, lacked much of his storytelling acumen.

At this point I’m not sure whether I’ll ever go back and finish the books.  It’s been 17 years and I’d probably have to start from the beginning again.  Maybe in my retirement once he finally finishes them.

As an aspiring storyteller, I’ve often wondered what it was about Martin’s tale that drew so many people in.  Was it the unpredictablity?  His penchant for killing off characters?  The overall grittiness of his world, a sort of Middle Earth for grown ups?  Or some combination of these factors?

A recent Scientific American article, in an attempt to analyze what was missing from the later seasons, posited that the difference came down to Martin’s sociological rather than psychological orientation.  Hollywood, the article asserts, is preoccupied with the psychological aspects of character experiences and actions, which was less effective than Martin’s sociological motivations.

I think there’s a glimmer of truth to this, but it somewhat misses the point.  What makes Martin’s storytelling so compelling is his characters, and his ability to evoke emotions in us about them.  And a big part of what makes those characters so compelling is their relation to the society they live in.

Jon Snow is a bastard whose father decides to leave and whose step-mother hates him, leaving him with the limited option of joining the Night’s Watch.  Tyrion is a dwarf whose mother died giving birth to him, earning his father’s hatred, and living in a world that despises him.  Daenerys starts off largely as human chattel, an offering from her brother to a warlord in payment for an alliance.  Samwell Tarly has a gentle nature in a social class that despises him for it.  And Arya has a warrior’s spirit in a society that expects her to grow into a prim and proper lady.

None of these characters are the types classically seen in fantasy.  Conan the Barbarian, King Arthur, Aragorn and many others are alpha males, usually paired with iconic female leads that are in many ways the pinnacle of their world.  Even the hobbits in Tolkien’s books are the elite of the Shire.  (Except perhaps for Samwise Gamgee.)

Martin’s characters start off with glaring disadvantages.  Of course, there are characters in his world who do have the advantages, obvious heroes who will obviously save the day.  Except that all the obvious heroes, one by one, get killed, leaving the characters we’re following, with all their challenges, to cope as best they can.  In the end, these characters are forced to become the new heroes, or villains.

That last point is important.  With many of Martin’s characters, we’re left struggling to categorize them as either good or evil.  Jaime Lannister, despite all expectations, becomes a sympathetic character.  And Daenerys, well, we see her being ruthless throughout the series, but towards bad people, and we assume that’s a rule, until we start to see otherwise.

As noted above, the main thing Martin excels at is evoking powerful emotions in his audience.  It starts with finding the characters engaging, then turns to dread as we see those characters endure searing agonizing challenges, then the triumph we feel if they succeed, or the grief if they fail.

In retrospect, knowing what I do now about story structure, the need for Ned Stark’s death and the Red Wedding are obvious.  Like the death of the Lion King, they evoked the emotions needed at the right time.  And the events of the final episodes evoked the emotions they did to bring about the bittersweet ending we saw.

I generally liked the ending, although I know a lot of people didn’t.  But the story had to end in some manner, and a totally happy ending for this series wouldn’t have felt authentic.  In the end, it’s the goal of art to produce powerful emotional experiences in the audience, which I think the ending accomplished.

If you who watched the show, what did you think of the ending?  Or the show overall?

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18 Responses to Reflections on Game of Thrones

  1. Great stuff if you enjoy sex and violence I suppose!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It does have plenty of that. But many other shows have tried to replicate its success with only the sex and violence, and have struggled, missing the other elements that make the story compelling.

      Like

  2. I confess to having watched a couple of series….. I would rather enjoy living north of the Wall…. And I rather fancy that woman with the correct dragons 😅

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  3. Bloody autocorrect…. Sorry

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  4. paultorek says:

    “His penchant for killing off characters?”

    Guns don’t kill people, George R. R. Martin kills people. <– seen on a bumper sticker, but also available as a tote bag from Amazon

    Like

  5. Oscardewilde22 says:

    This show connected to people from all walks of life. I turned off the first episode a couple of times because of the fantasy elements which is not really my thing, but pushed through after the recommendations kept coming in. And it definitely was great television and had some of the greatest scenes ever constructed , although I already never emotionally got over the killing of Ned Stark at the end of the first season. But in the end I guess the fantasy story line killed a great finale. That dead dragon just torching the great wall was silly and the great battle against the dead s08e03 was just too much. So many bad reviews on IMDb of that episode and after that one it did not recover to game of thrones standards for much people and for me personally, although it had some moments. I would never recommended season 8 or end of season 7.

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    • Sounds like you were attracted by the character drama rather than the setting. I get that. It reminds me that fiction writers can’t please everyone. I know people who only liked the show for the fantasy elements and were impatient with all the medieval politics.

      I do think the Night King could have been handled better. That part definitely felt rushed.

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  6. J.S. Pailly says:

    I haven’t seen any of Game of Thrones. Much like Lost, by the time this was on my radar I felt like I was too far behind to catch up. But I kind of feel like now that the HBO show is over, it’s a good time to pick up the book series. So I’m planning to give it a try sometime soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, the same thing happened for me with Breaking Bad and Walking Dead. By the time I was fully conscious of them, they were pretty far along.

      Be forewarned, the books aren’t done yet. He still has two to finish. At the rate he’s going, I worry if he’ll ever get there. I also read the early books of The Wheel of Time series in the early 90s, and stopped when there was no end in sight. Those eventually had to be completed by Brandon Sanderson after Robert Jordan died. It’s possible something similar might have to happen with this series.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Wyrd Smythe says:

    As I think you know, I’ve never read the books and only watched the first two (or three?) seasons on HBO. I stopped after the Red Wedding.

    I’m a big Tarantino fan, so it’s not the gore or killings. It’s more that nothing in the series attracts me. Not a fan of Medieval time frame; not a fan of Kings and courts; not a fan of wars and battles; not a fan (particularly) of dragons; not a fan of zombies…

    It’s like pie. Which is well-loved by so many, but I just don’t care for cooked fruit. Nothing against pie, per se, just a matter of personal taste.

    I saw you mentioned Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. I did get sucked into that one, but I think it was volume six — where basically nothing happened in the entire very thick book — that turned me off them. I stopped buying them shortly thereafter.

    (IIRC, I only started in the first place because I didn’t send in the “No I don’t want these books” card from the SFBC in time and got one of the later volumes. That actually did work out well a few times — discovered a great new author or series — but maybe not so much that time.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, the series is definitely not for everyone. Sounds like you watched three seasons. The Red Wedding is probably the lowest moment of the series. Robb Stark is one of those obvious heroes that mess up and go down horribly, taking his mother, lieutenants, and army with him.

      I only read the first two or three books of The Wheel of Time series. At this point I barely remember it. I hear someone’s working on a TV series for it. Hope they do it well. Although I have no interest in starting that big of a book series again, the story sounds interesting, and I wouldn’t mind watching it.

      I got introduced to a lot of authors by failing to mail in the SFBC card. My first Orson Scott Card book, Wyrms, came about exactly that way. I see the SFBC is still around. I wonder how they’re doing. It’s been 20 years since I was even tempted to join them, and having gone full Kindle, it’d be a very hard sale these days.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        Yeah, I can’t imagine joining anymore. I left long ago, but a lot of my hardcover library is from them. Got into some new musical artists failing to stop CBS record club from sending me stuff, too. Serendipity can be fun.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Callan says:

    I’ve only read the first book. I presume the appeal is somewhat like Stockholm syndrome crossed with beaten partner syndrome crossed with problem gambling. That all the trauma is for something, that the worse it gets the bigger the pay off will be. On the other hand I read Scott Bakker, so who am I to talk (or alternatively if it takes one to know one maybe I really do know)

    I have wondered if Martin actually is planning to die of a normal, finite life span before the end of the books as a kind of artistic statement – forcing the whole mess of deaths and trauma to simply have a bunch of loose threads. So all the people who pretty much demand (to the point of rising anger) to have everything neatly tied up actually have to face something far more messy than they ever want to face. Something like the real world. That all the wars they vote for don’t have some neat author to tie them all up – it just makes a mess of loose ends made of corpses.

    I find it really weird the TV series has ended even though the books haven’t.

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    • I think Martin does intend to finish them, but he’s been struggling with it for years now. He might well leave it unfinished. Of course, we all now have the outline of how it ends in the TV show, so the only questions are what is different and the fate of all the other characters that never made it into the show.

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