Why didn’t the character I love die last night?
Plot armor, adaptation and acts of subversion.
!Spoiler, for the third time from the rafters, Warning!
I’m going to ask you to remember watching the first season of Game of Thrones, and if you need to, pretend you hadn’t read the books at all and had no knowledge of any plot going forward. I want you to try and remember episode nine, when Ned Stark hobbled up to confess his crimes against the crown and fully expected he would be sent to the Wall to take the Black. And I want you to try to feel again the abject horror that crept into you when you realized that show star Sean Bean was about to get his head chopped off and neither you nor anyone in the show could do anything about it.
To a lot of people, that’s Game of Thrones. To GoT fans, particularly fans of the books, A Song of Ice and Fire has been built on and made legendary by its ability to spring the unexpected on you. Killing your favorite characters, dashing their plans upon the rocks, refusing to push a fairytale ending for nearly any character in universe is George R. R. Martin’s m.o. and for the most part people love it.
There’s some kind of cynical, nihilistic pleasure that people seem to derive from losing their favorite character. Maybe it’s a layer of reality brought to a fantasy setting, where no one is safe and anyone can be killed. There’s a thrill that must be generated from reading each chapter or watching each episode knowing that any major player could die from something as simple as a goblet of wine. Honestly, this is a kind of high for some fans, being on edge constantly… definitely something there.
Early on there was also a group of people that had read the source material knowing, more or less, what was coming in the show, lording this over their non-book reading friends. How many people sat smugly as Robb and Cat Stark ate the bread and salt at the Twins, knowing full well the impending carnage that was about to ensue. There’s just something about the possibility of devastation in GoT that has created a wholly unique atmosphere for its fans. An atmosphere of expectation which has manifested recently in a very specific way, with one entirely macabre question: Who do you think is going to die this episode?
To be clear, this means how many 1st team all Westeros characters are going to die. Untold number of nameless foot soldiers have died over the last eight seasons, and if they haven’t been reanimated to walk alongside the Night King, they’ve probably just been unceremoniously burned or buried. No, what we’re talking about here is a thirst for blood for the top billed cast. The type of deaths we can, as a collective, get real emotional about on Twitter.
This is a truly masochistic world to live in for an hour or so at a time. What other fandom is quietly rooting for the demise of their own favorite character, if only to feel the cold sting of loss? Is this the only way GoT fans can even feel alive anymore, besides making Bran memes? Has GoT damaged the empathic parts of our brains so severely that we honestly can’t believe that more of our favorite characters didn’t die in the battle of Winterfell?
A strange issue to have, but a valid one none-the-less.
So these questions brings to mind some key plot devices that have moved the story along for us since, essentially, the end of season five. This period of time pretty firmly marked the departure from the already plotted narrative, and began to delve completely into the outline created by the show runners. Of course there had been a decent amount of divergence up to this point, but from season six forward, the show was as much guessing what GRRM’s intentions were as it was making a narrative of its own.
This is when GoT fully morphed into a TV show shaking off the guise of pure adaptation.
I want to couch the rest of this article with the fact that I’ve been a huge fan of what Benioff and Weiss have created and That I mark season six a bit higher on my list than most fans do. Season seven does have its fair share of issues that have been written and podcasted about at length, almost all of which I feel are super valid. Season eight, which may be bolstered by a bit of recency bias, has been amazing so far, episode two being a watermark for the entire series. They’ve let me down when it comes to explaining the magic of this world, all the while using it liberally for the sake of set pieces, but that’s a gripe for another time.
That said, the aspects of this show that make it a TV SHOW are also the aspects that generate the type of criticism I can’t shake off so easily. The chief most perpetrator is the idea of plot armor, a construct created by the narrative that makes it almost impossible for a character to die, or be injured in a way that would keep them from being able to carry out their narrative purpose. Bringing you back to the beginning of this rant, all signs pointed to Ned Stark having plot armor, which made his untimely death all at once stunning and riveting. Game of Thrones it seemed, was void of characters with plot armor, and that was a huge part of what made it feel so revolutionary.
Again, referencing the narrative freedom the show achieved between season five and six is where it became clear that that rules had changed. We saw Jon Snow full on ides-of-marched, but after the immediate shock of his demise had subsided, the internet was ablaze with fans of the book and show alike shouting “he won’t stay dead!”
I don’t think any of us ever saw Stannis Baratheon as the embodiment of the Azor Ahai, and while their was a strong case to be made for Daenerys Targaryen being the AA, the clear choice was Jon Snow, even before the R+L=J theory had been cemented. But how could Jon be the Prince that was Promised if he was dead? And so what should have rightly been a subversion of expectation was unable to hold up to narrative scrutiny and was summarily dismissed, losing all dramatic tension.
Quick reminder that Olly got what he deserved.
I suppose you could describe the Jon’s Not Dead plot as a double subversion, a concept that I’ll try to make a case for with some of the plot points from last night’s episode but… at what point is a subversions of a subversion just a regular storyline?
Building an initial foundation on evading expectation, in a story that is centered around political maneuvering, betrayal and sabotage, is a lot to juggle on its own. Having a book series with multiple point of view characters whose eyes you see the story through and whose heads you can live in makes for engrossing story telling. The fact that the show runners have been able to express this so well is a feat unto itself. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that the show was at its best when it was adapting George’s work. I also think it’s a fair assessment that since they’ve run out of existing, written, work to adapt, the narrative has suffered.
All of this culminated in the fog that has laid over the show for about two seasons. The titular game of thrones was put on hold because it didn’t even register in the shadow of the only war that ever mattered, the one between the living and the dead. This of course tracks if you see Jon and eventually Dany as the clear narrative drivers from season six forward. Episode two of season eight had Dany explicitly state that what she’d been working towards her whole life, and the last seven seasons of this TV show, means nothing in comparison to the dead coming to Winterfell. She sacrificed a Dragon, proving that the game wasn’t as important as staying alive.
What a wild path to go down, a path that has caused more than a few fans to scratch their heads, and has had what I can only assume is a completely unexpected consequence: making Dany and Jon less likable. Not by changing their characters, but by taking them out of character, at least from a cursory glance. Maybe Dany was always going to be the Mad Queen, maybe Jon was always supposed to die, so much so that he’s hurtled towards death at every single opportunity since escaping it. Maybe the game of thrones was simply a game. Subversions of subversions.
I do feel like this isn’t the type of subversion that most of us would’ve signed up for but what can we expect from a show built upon the unexpected. So much so that THE climactic scene managed to surprise and delight a fan base while using the very same elements that have made the plot a bit more stilted as of late. Arya, a character with questionable but sturdy plot armor, was able to subvert expectation because she was free from any narrative adaptation.
While we saw every other plan that was made crumble in execution, saw the Dragon Queen flounder and the King in the North look more lost than he ever had, while we saw Dany literally parked Drogon in a zombie mosh pit, and Jon try to shout an undead dragon to death, while the rest of Winterfell supplemented the army they were fighting against and Bran and Co. thought Theon Reeking Greyjoy was the best option for the last line of defense, Arya flew in like literal wind, hit the Night King with a Valyrian Steel Shammgod, and single handedly ended the Long Night before it even began.
As much as people will tell you they knew this was gonna happen, that it was telegraphed, that neither Jon nor Dany were bound to be the ones to end the Night King, the collective GoT consciousness lost itself in hysterics when it actually happened. People who spent the entire episode squinting into the darkness, as confused by what they were/not seeing as they were by the clearly flawed battle plans, apparently had enough clarity to see this twist. Luckily for all of us, Arya is the best.
Maybe this is the show’s ultimate subversion, ending the impending doom, that was introduced in its first sequence and had been slowly and ominously inching closer ever since, in one episode. Making light of the King in the North and the Queen of Dragons, these prophesied heroes, having them fail when they were needed the most and having the game back on in earnest. All of this, with only three episodes left to go!