Between Fire and Ice: Three Storytelling DON’Ts Game of Thrones Ignored and One DO It Nailed
WARNING: This article is dark and full of spoilers. It implies that you know what happens in Season 8 (or don’t know and don’t care). It also spoils a number of classic stories.
We all know the tragic story of Romeo and Juliet, the young star-crossed lovers from the city of Verona who dare to love each other against all odds. It’s so heartbreaking to witness their dream of being together ruined forever. And how! That moment when Romeo, full of rage triggered by being exiled from Verona, goes berserk upon hearing Verona’s bells and slaughters a few dozen monks in a nearby monastery! And that other unforgettable scene where Juliet discovers that Paris hasn’t really died and calls for help, thus saving him. And then the final twist: Juliet’s decision in the aftermath of Romeo’s wild massacre to reevaluate her former lover’s character and marry Paris. What a fantastic tragedy Shakespeare wrote!
Except he didn’t.
And had he written it that way, we would never have heard of it. The play would have disappeared quietly into the ages, lost among thousands of other stories that didn’t give their audience a satisfying conclusion. Romeo and Juliet’s real ending, tragic as it is, follows strong internal logic, giving characters motivation to act, and completing their arcs in a way that may cause tears, but not a “Huh?” reaction. Which is exactly what Game of Thrones’ penultimate episode accomplished despite its great cast, amazing directing, and best in class FX. So what went wrong?
In one word, storytelling.
While the showrunners’ choices are being torn to shreds by die-hard fans and long-standing critics alike, let’s take a look at some core storytelling principles the show suddenly decided to ignore. Ironically, adherence to these very principles was one of the factors that made Game of Thrones such a phenomenon in the first place.
DON’T Lower the Stakes
For eight years, the show told us that the real enemy was from the North. Winter has been coming from the first episode, bringing with it the very real prospect of wiping out every single man, woman, and child in Westeros. As noble families busily slaughtered each other, the show was driving home a simple idea: power struggles pale next to an existential threat. And the name of that threat was the Night King. One of the most mysterious and powerful villains in modern storytelling, a walking (and pointedly not talking) personification of death itself, he made House Bolton look like amateurs. The show spared no effort convincing us, along with almost every surviving character, that the only true war, the war worth fighting, was the Great War between the living and the dead.
If anything, this was the most persistent theme of the story. The first death we saw on the show was a human being beheaded by a White Walker. Some episodes later, the cold blue eyes of Craster’s infant hinted at the horrors to come. The brutally mesmerizing Hardhome scene, with hundreds of slaughtered people coming back from the dead to join the Night King’s army, showed us the full extent of his power. And the view of that army silently marching through the remains of the destroyed Wall at the end of Season 7 made us wonder what kind of a miracle could possible save the people of Westeros. We were sold on the show’s premise, and the stakes could not have been higher. As Jeor Mormont said, long before everyone else got the message, “When dead men come hunting in the night, do you think it matters who sits on the Iron Throne?”
We all know what happened next. The Night King never got a chance to extend his icy grip beyond Winterfell. How he was dealt with is beside the point. At the end, it was Arya who killed him, but it could have been Jon — or anyone else for that matter. What matters is that the biggest threat in over 8,000 years of Westeros history and eight years of TV was gone (unless he somehow manages to come back from the double-dead in the series finale). The story reached its climax, despite being far from over. And at that point it lost its steam despite all the fire and blood that followed. Why? Because that’s what climaxes are for.
The climax, by definition, is the resolution of a story’s main conflict.
It doesn’t have to be the last scene; in fact, the aftermath is often necessary to bring in the sense of closure. But after the main conflict has been resolved, no other conflict truly matters anymore. The ring disappears into the fires of Mount Doom, Anakin Skywalker defeats his own nature along with Emperor Palpatine, and Cinderella’s shoe fits. The story is over.
Not so fast, says Game of Thrones. Remember that uncomfortable iron chair in a tall tower? The one you cared about for so long before we convinced you to care about the dead? Now it’s time to care about who sits on that chair again. But we don’t. At least, not in the way we used to before the show convinced us that we had a bigger problem to deal with. Before it raised the stakes.
DON’T Let Your Plot Control Your Characters
Rushed. That’s how many disappointed fans of the show described their impression after watching the last few episodes. Rushed it was, but a sudden change in the pace of a story is only a symptom. The root cause typically lies deeper. Once you have established characters and clearly outlined conflicts, you can afford to speed things up if you have to. Sometimes this works, sometimes not. But there is a deeper problem with how Game of Thrones decided to wrap things up. The story suddenly stopped caring about its own characters and barged full speed into what’s known as plot-driven storytelling. And that, perhaps, was the worst thing it could have done.
The choice between a plot-driven and a character-driven approach to storytelling, which so often shows up in writing books, is, in essence, a false dichotomy. The reality is that as long as you want your story to be about characters who behave like real people, you are in a character-driven land. Unless you are in the business of intentionally producing cheap stories with two-dimensional, unchanging characters who never face a tough choice, plot-driven storytelling is just a euphemism for lazy writing. And while Game of Thrones does have its share of underdeveloped characters (Euron Greyjoy is not even two-dimensional), until now the show never let its plot trump characters’ motivations.
The only way an audience cares about what’s going on in a story is through the emotional connection made with characters. And the only way that connection, whether positive or negative, is achieved is by making those characters believable. They can (and preferably do) evolve throughout the story, but their change is a part of the plot, not a convenient tool to move the plot forward. When your characters start behaving in ways that are inconsistent with their established behavior, the audience looks for an explanation. And if that explanation is not satisfactory or simply isn’t given, the fourth wall gets breached faster than the Wall in the fires of Viserion. Instead of seeing the characters, the audience starts seeing the writer pulling the strings behind the scenes — and not giving a damn about the believability of the characters’ actions.
This is exactly what’s been happening in the last few episodes of Season 8. Whatever the reason — the lack of source material, the rush to wrap up the show, or something else — the writers have made their characters behave in ways completely inconsistent with their past actions. One of the smartest men in the Seven Kingdoms suddenly starts rivaling Jon Snow in “you know nothing” territory. Bloodthirsty Cersei — the woman who enjoyed blowing up everyone in the Great Sept of Baelor and wants to get rid of Daenerys at all costs — mysteriously decides not to kill her rival when she shows up in plain sight in front of the city gates, clearly within reach of her weapons. Instead of taking out the enemy, Cersei chooses to execute Missandei, getting rid of the only hostage she could use for negotiations. And then, of course, there’s Daenerys’ momentous, Hulk-like transformation into the Mad (truly mad) Queen, whose burn-them-all massacre makes Cersei look rather reasonable.
None of that makes any sense from the character development perspective. But all of this makes perfect sense from the perspective of the plot, if the writers’ objective is to wrap it up in a few episodes. Tyrion must make give Daenerys bad advice so that she continues to lose her dragons and armies, approaching the point of desperation. Cersei must execute Missandei in front of Daenerys so that the Dragon Queen has nothing to lose (and gains revenge as an extra motivation).
Finally, Daenerys has no choice but to go berserk at the sound of bells and start napalming the city with her remaining dragon, who conveniently becomes invincible.
She must fulfill her destiny of becoming the Burner of Innocents, which was planned for her a while ago. This is logical. But logic alone is not enough when it comes to human behavior. Otherwise Ned Stark would still be alive, and the seven seasons, along with the seven kingdoms, would have been very different. The audience does a face-palm and, just like famed Russian theatrical director Konstantin Stanislavski, says, “I don’t believe.” The spell is broken, and neither the old nor the new gods can do anything about it.
DON’T Reverse Redemption
No memorable, rich story is possible without character transformation. It’s those internal journeys that characters take as they go through the plot’s external obstacles that make us truly care about them.
From naive to wise, from cautious to brave, from weak to strong, characters change — and we recognize our own struggles in their defeats and victories.
Among all types of character transformation, redemption has a special place. The journey from bad to good is perhaps the hardest one to pull off (just ask George Lucas). And when it’s done right, it can turn a good story into a great one. Game of Thrones has a few character redemption arcs, but none as dramatic and convincing as Jaime Lannister’s internal journey. Or at least, that’s what his arc had been until the show decided to slam the brakes on it just one episode away from the finish line.
Making an audience root for a man whose first memorable act was pushing a 10-year-old boy out of the window is a marvel of storytelling. By the time Season 8 began, we were ready if not to forget, then at least to forgive, as were Bran Stark and quite a few others. The man who began his journey as a despicable aristocratic rascal managed to transform into a truly dramatic figure, ready to do what’s right and, if needed, face punishment for his past actions. Leaving Cersei behind to stand by his word and join the fight with the dead was the moment when his redemption arc came to completion. After that it was no surprise to see him apologize to Bran or knight Brienne in one of the most emotional moments of the show. What came next was a surprise … and not a good one.
Erasing seven seasons of his character’s arc, Jamie went back to Cersei.
He didn’t become the rascal he once was, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that the Jaime we saw in the last scene could have been the Jaime from the first episode of the show. That Jaime was no coward and loved Cersei in spite of knowing full well who she was. And in his and Cersei’s last moments, that Jaime would have consoled her in exactly the same way. The seven-season-long character journey simply served no purpose if Jaime’s final destination was that mad rush back to Cersei at all costs.
Could a real person do that in real life? Of course. People reverse their behavior all the time. But characters are not real people. They behave like ones, they trigger very real emotions in us, they can even feel more real than some people we know, but at their core, they are writers’ devices for telling the story. And a story of redemption makes us feel cheated if that redemption is reversed. Which is why, despite all the complexities and tribulations of Jaime’s journey, his odd departure leaves the crown of Redeemed Character to The Hound. The man who started by killing the innocent son of a butcher, left the story a hero. And at the end, his “I fought for you, didn’t I?” to Arya meant more than Jaime’s entire journey.
DO Have a Message
A message is the invisible cornerstone of every well-told story. It’s the conclusion that the audience takes away after closing the book, exiting the theater, or, in the case of Game of Thrones, turning off the TV. It’s the why of the story, the storyteller’s purpose behind creating the characters and plot.
When it comes to Game of Thrones, its message has been a bit hard to grasp all along. Most of the time it seemed best expressed by the show’s tagline: All men must die. And die they did, one after another. Then, at times, it felt like the message was more about power. Cersei and her father were the masters of emphasizing that idea. “Power is power.” “When you play the game of thrones, you win, or you die.” “Any man who must say, ‘I am the king’ is no true king.” Those were powerful lines, backed up by powerful actions.
That, however, was long ago, and somehow the original message(s) got lost in the mayhem of the last few episodes. If anything, the message of the story has started to sound more and more fatalistic: “you cannot escape your destiny.” If you’re a slave, you die in chains, even if you were free for most of the show. If you’re born into a mad Targaryen family, you will turn into a mad Targaryen, despite being a liberator for years. If you’re destined to kill someone at the very end, you will survive, against all odds, to fulfill your destiny.
But along this deterministic message, another one has emerged in the final season — and it’s hard to say to what degree it’s intentional. It’s best expressed by a single word from Stannis Baratheon during the Battle of the Blackwater. When he is told that hundreds will die, he simply replies, “Thousands.” And despite dozens of battles on the show in the last eight years, that message was never as powerfully on full display as it was during “The Bells.” Thanks to Miguel Sapochnik’s magnificent directing, the sights of running, screaming people being burned alive in dragon fire delivered that message with unflinching clarity.
When some play the game of thrones, thousands — and sometimes millions — die.
Caught between fire and ice, the people of Westeros were no better off in the fire of Daenerys’ dragon than they would have been in the hands of the Night King’s army. The promises of breaking the wheel and declarations of best intentions didn’t matter. The price was still the same. The iron price. Because those who want to rule at all costs care least about those they rule. They only care about ruling. And that message, whether intentional or not, will perhaps be the show’s greatest legacy once the final credits roll.
For an example of what happens when storytelling principles don’t get ignored, see this review of Toy Story 4:
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