the series was disappointing for many fans. But for me, it was just a relief that it was finally over.
Now, I do agree that the quality of the writing declined, not just this season, but over the past two seasons at least. And my friend Alex Kuskis shared an article over on Facebook that I think is very relevant: The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones, by Zeynep Tufekc. Here is his main point, in his own words:
After the show ran ahead of the novels, however, it was taken over by powerful Hollywood showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Some fans and critics have been assuming that the duo changed the narrative to fit Hollywood tropes or to speed things up, but that’s unlikely. In fact, they probably stuck to the narrative points that were given to them, if only in outline form, by the original author. What they did is something different, but in many ways more fundamental: Benioff and Weiss steer the narrative lane away from the sociological and shifted to the psychological. That’s the main, and often only, way Hollywood and most television writers tell stories.
His argument also has some relevance for media ecology, as can be seen from the following comment:
I encounter this shortcoming a lot in my own area of writing—technology and society. Our inability to understand and tell sociological stories is one of the key reasons we’re struggling with how to respond to the historic technological transition we’re currently experiencing with digital technology and machine intelligence
I won't go any further in discussing Tufekc's arguments, except to note that science fiction narratives often are sociological rather than psychological, which is why they are often criticized as narratives. And also to recommend that you read the article, as it is truly one of the more insightful discussions of Game of Thrones, and the fantasy genre.
Where Tufekc and I part company, however, is on the point of whether Game of Thrones was a very good narrative at all, at any point. And my view is that it was not. Now, you may ask why, if that was the case, did I continue to watch the program over the better part of a decade. And my answer is, I liked the spectacle, I enjoyed the genre, and of course being a cool cat, it was curiosity that did me in.
And hey, I watch a lot of stuff that isn't great. That's the thing about TV, isn't it?
And let me be upfront about where I stand: I adore J.R.R. Tolkien, I think he was brilliant, and my favorite books of all
time are The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. And let's be honest here, George R.R. Martin was clearly inviting comparisons in using the double R middle initials. I mean, who does that? Was it necessary? I think not.
So, how do they compare? Tolkien was a literary genius. Tom Shippey nailed it with the title of one of his books about Tolkien: Author of the Century! And Tolkien was a professor and a scholar, and a media ecologist. That's all pretty impressive. If you want to know more on this point, you might want to read the post I published in the second month of this blog's existence, which consisted of my conference paper, Tolkiens of My Affection (a revised and finalized version is included in my book, On the Binding Biases of Time).
As for Martin? Well, I'm tempted to say that he's a hack. And maybe that's too harsh. Let's just say he's unexceptional, maybe mediocre, maybe just a hair above average. What do I base this on? Frankly, I only read the first book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, which is entitled A Game of Thrones. And my reaction to it was a profound and distinct, meh!
Martin's fans can therefore criticize me for not giving him enough of a chance, and I will certainly grant that he has excelled in regard to volume of verbiage. But the first book didn't hook me, I found nothing compelling about the prose, nothing aesthetically pleasing, just straightforward storytelling. You might say that's a good thing, but it's the kind of writing that does not make him stand out as an author. There's no literary artistry, no poetry, just bland exposition. And that would be okay if the narrative made up for it.
Having spoken to others who have read as much of the series as he's published so far, I know that the complexity of the story is what some favor about his writing. And I understand that, but complexity for its own sake doesn't do anything for me. Sorry.
I should also mention that, while I did not read A Game of Thrones until after seeing the first season of the HBO series, I have had prior exposure to George R.R. Martin's writing. Back in 1987, he published the first volume in the Wild Cards
anthology series. He edited the book, and wrote one of the stories. Back then, I used to regularly check out the Science Fiction and Fantasy section of bookstores, saw it, picked it up, and read it. I followed the series into the mid-90s, and along the way, Martin added Melinda Snodgrass as co-editor, and stopped contributing his own stories.
The Wikipedia entry on Wild Cards indicates that after the last book I read, the 15th in the series, published in 1995, a bunch of new volumes were published, starting in 2002. Who knew? And maybe more to the point, who cares? I don't, not anymore.
And when I did read these books, I never paid much attention to who the author of the stories were. I'm sorry, but nobody stood out, and that includes Martin. And as editor, well, nothing much to say there either. The main thing is that the series was his creation.
So, what was it all about? Simply put, Wild Cards is based on the comic book concept of the superhero, the idea being to try to tell more realistic stories about what would happen if some people gained superpowers. This of course meant that the stories would go against the heroic archetype prevalent in comics. An original idea?
Well, Alan Moore's Watchmen comic series debuted in 1986, and when it comes to comics and the superhero genre, Moore's work is simply brilliant. Not on the level of Tolkien, mind you, but exhibiting an amazing insight into the concept of the superpowered individual. Prior to that, Moore delivered a shocking take on a British Captain Marvel (aka Shazam) knockoff, Marvelman (later retitled Miracleman). A lesser but still significant attempt at superhero realism was Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, also 1986.
The point here is that Wild Cards did not break any new ground in setting up an alternate reality with superpowered individuals. And while the source of powers was a virus, it otherwise has much in common with Marvel's mutant characters, especially as the X-Men comics evolved following the publication of Giant-Size X-Men in 1975. The narratives
that followed introduced characters who were mutants, but neither heroes nor villains, and some mutations were more along the lines of disabilities rather than powers. Wild Cards follows the same pattern in having the virus turn some individuals into "Jokers" who are characterized by "crippling and/or repulsive physical conditions" to quote the Wikipedia entry, as well as the "Aces" who gain superpowers.
Okay, so what about the idea of a collaborative work, different authors contributing stories within a shared universe? Well, Wild Cards followed the example of Thieves' World, created by Robert Lynn Asprin, launched in 1978,
edited by him and also Lynn Abbey. This was a fantasy genre series, much like Game of Thrones, with some very impressive contributors, and gained a good amount of attention in its time, as well as resulting in several spin-offs. For more on this, see the Wikipedia entry on Thieves' World.
And I'm not saying this was great literature, but it was fairly original, in being a collection of short stories set in a common world and with characters interacting with one another across the stories. Clearly, this was the model that Wild Cards followed, and moving towards a more realistic take on the fantasy genre than, say, Tolkien, or Conan the Barbarian, it must also have been an influence on Game of Thrones.
Preceding these short story anthologies, there have been collaborative work that took the form of novels by different writers. I'm not that familiar with this phenomenon, so I would direct you to the Wikipedia entry on Shared universe.
When it comes to the creation of a shared universe, the medium of comic books immediately comes to mind. The best known examples are the DC and Marvel universes. But both universes formed from the bottom up, with characters making guest appearances in other characters' comics. In the case of Marvel, this was more deliberate, as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby started out with the idea that the various heroes they created lived in the same world. But they did not start out by creating the universe itself. The DC and Marvel universes were formed and evolved piecemeal, bit by bit.
Later creations, like Marvel's New Universe launched, again, in 1986 (with about the same success as New Coke), not only tried to create more realistic scenarios, but also more coherent explanations for the appearance of superpowered individuals. Whereas the older universes were wonderfully eclectic, combining aliens, mutations, serums, chemical reactions, technological innovations, magical creations, mythological origins, and romanticized, idealistic notions of specialized physical training, the new universes tried to provide a single, coherent, monocausal explanation for the existence of extraordinary individuals. Not as much fun, as it turns out.
So, Wild Cards was one such new universe, and obviously the shared universe of superhero comics was an inspiration. But wait, there's more. And this something I was completely unaware of until I read that Wikipedia entry on Wild Cards, specifically the following: "The series originated from a long-running campaign of the Superworld role-playing game, gamemastered by Martin and involving many of the original
authors." Superworld originated in 1983, so it couldn't have been all that long-running, but anyway, if you want to read more about the game, you can go to the entry on Superworld, I don't mind.
Let me just spell out the connections here. Superworld is based on the original Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. Oh, you want a link for that entry too? Okay, here it is: Dungeons & Dragons. Now, that game is based on the fantasy genre in literature, notably on the work of Tolkien, The Hobbit significantly featuring both a dungeon, inhabited by goblins, and a dragon, named Smaug.
The game is also has a connection to the fantasy writing of Robert E. Howard, creator of the Conan the Barbarian
series, the basis of the sword and sorcery take on fantasy writing. Like Tolkien, Howard single handedly created a fantasy universe, Howard's being more of the pulp variety as opposed to literary art, although I do recall reading somewhere that Tolkien expressed a favorable opinion regarding Howard's work. By the way, when it comes to shared universes, while Howard made some reference to the fantasy-horror universe of H.P. Lovecraft and his Cthulu mythos, Lovecraft being a fellow pulp writer, and it's probably worth noting that C.S. Lewis made reference to the universe of his fellow inkling Tolkien, in Lewis's Space Trilogy. But I digress.
The point I was getting at is that role-playing games, Dungeons & Dragons and Superworld, were the basis of Martin's earlier work, Wild Cards, and this obviously also influenced his later work, the A Song of Ice and Fire series. I mean, the first book is, after all, A Game of Thrones. Get it, get it, a game. And if you approach it that way, you have a bunch of characters, all of them pursuing their own goals which may at any point result in conflict or cooperation. That accounts for the complexity of the stories.
But games are not narratives. And what makes for a good game is often at odds with what makes for a good story. And what we get on the HBO series is the complexity of game play, but a narrative that has no satisfying resolution. It probably would have worked better as a never-ending story, along the lines of a soap opera.
Speaking of which, another important source of shared universes is, in fact, the television series, especially in the American tradition of commercial TV. This is in contrast to British television, where dramatic series in particular have often been created with more of an extended literary structure, with a beginning, middle, and end clearly in mind. Our TV, on the other hand, has traditionally been episodic. This is most obvious in the case of situation comedies. You create the situation, add some characters, and produce a series of stories that have little or nothing to do with one another, apart from the situation and characters. This results in the oddity of early TV in which the situation resets at the end of the episode, with no effect on subsequent episodes, something often made fun of on The Simpsons. But it's not just comedies that have situations, so do dramatic programs, whether they are entirely episodic or the ongoing set of intertwined narratives that constitute a soap opera.
Even when episodes have no effect on what comes next, there is a need to maintain consistency in regard to the situation, and the characters, so TV series typically have some sort of bible, a manual that goes over the characteristics of the situation, what is and is not possible, and the traits of the characters, what they can and cannot do. These constitute guidelines for the writers, directors, actors, and producers. In other words, the situation is the program's shared universe.
Even if the creators start out with an idea of what the ending will be, that doesn't mean it's a good idea. It's much easier to set up a mystery than to solve it in a way that satisfies, and that has us realizing that we could have solved it, that the clues were all there if only we had put the piece together properly.
Sometimes you may have an idea of what the ending should be, but as you get to it, you realize it doesn't quite work, or the characters took off in a different trajectory, or it's just ending with a whimper rather than a bang. In the case of Game of Thrones, we know that Martin provided a sketch, an outline, but that doesn't mean the ending was fully thought out and developed.
And after all, there are only so many ways that a story can be resolved. When you start out, you are opening up a myriad of pathways, but you have to shut them down to get to the final end. But all this is somewhat besides the point, my point being that it's not just the ending, but the entire series that just wasn't that good.
So far, I've noted one reason is that Game of Thrones is, literally, a gamer narrative, with Martin in effect playing a role-playing game with himself. I'll refrain from the obvious double entendre about playing with yourself, and just note that actual game play of this sort is never very satisfying as game play, and neither is it a good approach to constructing a narrative.
Granted, Martin does create a complex scenario and a large number of characters, and this does pull people into the narrative. But the problem is that it is a scenario without a satisfying end point. This is the problem with stretched out narratives, that there is no clear conclusion that the narrative is working towards, and that even when there is some ending in mind, it is not of substantial weight given the massive build up of the elongated story line.
As I've mentioned, given the multiplicity of characters, Game of Thrones in some ways resembles a soap opera, and probably could have worked well in that kind of format. For example, the most celebrated prime time soap in American TV history, one that gained a global following, was Dallas,
which featured the Ewing family and lots of feuding within that clan. The second major example was Dynasty, which featured the Carringtons, and lots of familial fighting. In a more contemporary vein, Empire features the Lyon family in ongoing conflicts. And there are many more examples. Game of Thrones is in many ways a story about families at war with one another, sometimes with themselves, and that's a story that could go on indefinitely with great success, rather than wrapping up in a manner that cannot help but be inconclusive.
Mystery stories, on the other hand, are all about the ending, and how you get there, and again, whether readers/audiences can recognize the clues and either put them together to figure out the ending, or after getting to the ending, can see how the they could have figured it out from the clues if they had only figured out how they fit together. And while Game of Thrones is not a mystery story, it is a story with a set of mysteries and
Another genre that comes to mind is the horror genre. Horror narratives, especially in recent decades, generally involve individuals getting killed one by one, often in ways and at times that are unexpected, startling, shocking, and yes, horrifying. Game of Thrones does include something of that sort of thing, but the horror genre typically involves a very limited number of characters, often stuck in a situation that they cannot easily escape, some kind of confined setting, quite the opposite of Game of Thrones with its large number of characters and sprawling fantasy world. Horror and fantasy are closely related and often overlapping genres, but both usually feature some sense of a hero, in horror being the person who turns the tide against the evil force, or the sole survivor. Ripley in Alien comes readily to mind, so that while
we are led to identify first with Kane, before the face-hugger gets him, and then with Dallas, before the fully grown alien gets him, we ultimately identify with Ripley as the only survivor of the ordeal. And horror stories often involve a bit of a morality play, in that the characteristics associated with the victims are shown to be undesirable, even bad or mad, and the characteristics associated with the hero or survivors are shown to be desirable. Sometimes no one survives, a kind of nihilistic resolution. Game of Thrones has some horror elements, notably in the form of the White Walkers most of whom resemble zombies, and other forms of supernatural and human evil, but again, no resolution appropriate to the horror genre.
Game of Thrones has many moments that, in my view, are mainly there for shock value. There's a great deal of violence, nothing new there, the Spartacus series on Starz comes to mind for its over-the-top violence, in its own way comic book-like, and its was also notable for its graphic nudity. Game of Thrones certainly followed this example. Shock value and graphic nudity attract audiences, sex and violence is a longstanding formula. For getting those oh so essential eyeballs. Attracting attention, building audiences. But that's not the same thing as composing a noteworthy narrative. It's all about the spectacle. Amusing, of pruient interest, perverse perhaps, but a passing fancy, not an experience of enduring value.
In its early going, Game of Thrones uses shock value but also deliberately defies expectations, as important characters that appear to be the hero of the narrative, and invite us to identify with them, are offed. Killed unexpectedly, horribly, violently. Not tragically, because that requires being the architect of your own doom, rather out of stupidity or naivité. But on the point of defying expectations, the series 24 comes to mind. The first season was amazing, because they expertly set up expectations and then defied them, leading viewers to make assumptions about characters and plot that turned out to be mistaken. I was blown away by it, I have to admit. The second season, a little less so. The third season even less so, and by then I had come to expect the formula of misdirection. Alfred Korzybski, founder of general semantics, used to say, whatever you say a thing is, it is not. In the same way, on 24, whatever you thought was going on, was not. The person who appeared to be a villain turned out to be a good guy. The innocent victim turned out to be a highly competent spy. And while it wasn't always possible to predict what was coming, it was a predictable formula that there would be reversals during almost every episode. So when they came, they were no longer surprising, or as entertaining as before. Same thing with Game of Thrones, once you get used to it, you know to expect the betrayal, the fall from grace, the hero getting offed, the continual defying of whatever expectations seem to be set up. Again, it's a case of diminishing returns, making the final seasons less and less satisfying, also because the reversals kind of dried up.
But of course, when it comes to genre, Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series and HBO's Game of Thrones clearly falls into the realm of fantasy, where Tolkien's influence as a writer looms large, and the success of Peter Jackson adaptations have obviously generated interest in similar kinds of cinematic productions for movie theaters and television (by which I mean traditional, cable, and streaming/on demand online services). No doubt, either HBO said, we need to do our own fantasy series, or producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss pitched the idea as Tolkien, but with sex and violence, and HBO bought it. High concept!
And thinking of how Game of Thrones was sold, going back to how Martin's book series would be pitched, I'm sure what was said was, it's like Tolkien, but more realistic. And that's what Martin set out to do. Just like Wild Cards was like superhero comics, but more realistic. The problem is that fantasy is all about, well, the fantastic! About something other than the ugliness of the real world. Martin brings that ugliness back into his fantasy narrative, making it just another story about war and politics. Given the events of the past few years, that kind of story hits all too close to home.
Fantasy has heroes. They need not be paradigms of virtue or perfect heroes. Maybe a barbarian thief, like Conan. Maybe an orphan of no apparent means like Harry Potter. Maybe a frivolous hobbit like Bilbo Baggins. Or maybe like Frodo it's a hero whose heroic act is to be doomed to failure but to continue anyway through faith and self-sacrifice. Often, the characters grow, gaining abilities but also developing character. You can even have an antihero like Michael Moorcock's creation, Elric of Melniboné. And by the way, those are stories that deserve to be brought to life on film and/or TV, and would have been a much better choice for HBO than Martin's series. And again, this is because Martin has all of his heroes killed. Game of Thrones is not about an antihero, it is fundamentally anti-hero.
The realism in Game of Thrones is political and economic, so that there is no moral center, no spiritual quality, nothing transcendent or inspiring about the story. Well, unfortunately, we have plenty of that in real life. That's why we need fantasy! Not for dragons and demons! There's a cynical quality to Game of Thrones that makes it too much like the world we live in.
In a 2011 essay in the New York Times Book Review, David Orr, who mostly speaks well of Martin's book, although with some criticisms, states, "Martin’s books are essentially the War of the Roses with magic." That's 15th century England, a war between two noble houses, the Lancasters and the Yorks, hence Martin's Lannisters and Starks. Historian Tom Holland, in a 2013 article in the Guardian aptly entitled, Game of Thrones is More Brutally Realistic Than Most Historical Novels, explains that the historical sources are a bit more eclectic, for example Petyr Baelish as based on 16th century England's Thomas Cromwell. Explaining that Cersei is based on the 15th century Queen of England, Isabella, known as the she-wolf of France, he goes on to state
When a fleet attacks her capital only to be annihilated by liquid explosives, the obvious parallel is with the "Greek fire" deployed by the Byzantines in their defence of Constantinople against the Arabs. Different events–and different periods–elide to consistently potent and surprising effect. In Game of Thrones, episodes from the history of our own world lie in wait for the characters like booby traps.
The default mode is high medieval, but alongside all the tournaments and castles there are echoes as well of earlier periods. Offshore, a recognisably Viking kingdom boasts a fleet of longships; Westeros itself, like dark ages England, was once a heptarchy, a realm of seven kingdoms; the massive rampart of ice which guards its northernmost frontier is recognisably inspired by Hadrian's wall. Beyond Westeros, in a continent traversed by a Targaryen would-be queen, the echoes of our own world's history are just as clear–if more exotic. An army of horsemen sweeps across endless grasslands, much as Genghis Khan's Mongols did; memories of a vanished empire conflate Rome with the legend of Atlantis.
Funny thing, when the first season of Game of Thrones premiered on HBO on April 17, 2011, the series Camelot had
And let me note at this point that I am not entitely against the attempt to inject some realism into a fantasy narrative. As I mentioned, Alan Moore's Watchman is brilliant. And I've been watching The Magicians on the SyFy network, based on novels that are a more realistic take on a Harry Potter-like scenario, adding sex, drugs, and yeah, rock and roll, and also violence and death, even child molestation, dealt with seriously, but the series on the whole is fun, has a sense of whimsy, is, dare I say it, magic.
Game of Thrones has magic in its content, but not in its form. It's too much like real history. Depressingly real. That's not good fantasy.
And yes, Martin has been praised for having created this whole elaborate history for his fictional world. But real history, as the saying goes, is one damn thing after another. It has no teleology, no plan, no meaning. That's secular history of course, as opposed to mythology and religious history. And Martin's narrative follows the pattern of secular history, which again is why there is no satisfactory closure at the end of the series.
Another comparison comes to mind, that of Frank Herbert's
Dune novels, and the sequel and prequel novels by his son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, that fully realized Herbert's vision. I wouldn't be surprised if Herbert, who was influenced by general semantics by the way, via S.I. Hayakawa, and whose novels influenced George Lucas in his creation of Star Wars, was also an influence on Martin. His stories were very much about a grand sweep of history, in this case, being science fiction rather than fantasy, a history set in the far future. There's a return to a feudel type of society on a galactic scale, with much emphasis on court politics, religious uprisings, and much warfare, and there also are heroes who turn out to be somewhat ambiguous. And there are unexpected setbacks and mistakes that greatly complicate the ongoing series of events. But with all that, there still is the sense of something transcendent, some great purpose to it all, that is fundamentally missing from Martin's storytelling.
Speaking of Star Wars, while the films are great fun, and very much in the fantasy genre of magic (the force) and characters who are good and evil, those narratives take place "a long time ago" and "in a galaxy far far away" which takes them out of any clear relationship to us. They are not in our historical past, or future for that matter, not in a part of the universe we can locate in any manner. The stories have no relation to us here and now. And that makes them less significant, less compelling, than they might otherwise be.
The same is true for Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, and HBO's Game of Thrones. They are realistic in one sense, and a completely fictional world on the other. So what is that world's relation to us? What's at stake in their trials and conflicts? No relation, nothing at stake, apparently. It an imaginary world, but unimaginative at the same time. As fantasy goes, it's a bit of a bait and switch.
Now, you might want to argue that the fantasy genre has no need to relate to our world, but you'd be wrong. Others, like Moorcock, explain that their worlds are in another dimension. Harry Potter is in our present-day world. And Tolkien? His stories were an attempt to create a pre-history for our world. They are in our own past, a forgotten past, but one with traces that connect to our remembered myths and legends, folk tales and fairy tales, and of beings such as elves, dwarves, goblins, wizards, and the like, as well as sunken Atlantis.
You see, Tolkien matters, his stories mean something to us because they are about us, about remembering who and what we are. No wonder a whole new kind of spiritual movement has arisen around Tolkien's tales. I don't see anything like that happening for Martin's stories. They're good for role-playing games, without a doubt. But they are not life-affirming or life-modeling.
So, I know that many disagree with me, and one thing I want to make clear is that I am not saying that Martin should have just done a Tolkien knock-off. Not at all. What I am saying is that his stories may be popular, the series may have been very successful, but like his White Walkers, it's all kind of souless, zombie-like storytelling, eminently forgetable, a passing fad, or in the words of the bard, it's all just sound and fury signifying nothing.