The Problem with “Game of Thrones”

 There’s a joke I read online somewhere that starts this post beautifully: “GRR Martin, JJ Abrams, and Joss Whedon walk into a bar, and everyone you’ve ever loved dies.” Yeah, that sounds about right.

The Emmys were on a few weeks ago. “Game of Thrones” won big with a capital B. And I couldn’t help but think “why?” When I finished the past season, I sat back and wondered whether I would watch it anymore. The end of every season always finds the internet all atwitter with the various “shocking” deaths of certain characters. Why anybody is shocked by a character death, or at least maiming, in this show by now is beyond me. George RR Martin makes a regular habit of killing of whatever character strikes his fancy.  So I knew what was coming when I finally watched the finale of season five.

Was I shocked by the deaths? Not really. I’ve come to expect it. I’ve come to expect that any character that I might grow fond of is probably going to get the ax (figuratively and literally). And that illustrates the fundamental problem with “Game of Thrones” the show and “A Song of Fire and Ice” the book series.

Before we go on, let’s be up front, shall we? There WILL be spoilers below. Oh yes, there will be spoilers.

You’ve been warned.

Let’s get the problem on the table right now. GRR Martin has left us with nearly no character with which to emphasize. Every time we begin to get close to a character, that character meets and untimely and often ugly end. Let’s recap everybody who got killed off in the last episode of season five, shall we?

  • Selyse Baratheon, who hangs herself with guilt of what she let her husband Stannis do to their daughter
  • Stannis Baratheon, defeated in battle by Lord Bolton, and, after fleeing to the nearby wood, is discovered by Brienne of Tarth, who avenges her former sworn lord, Stannis’s brother Renly, whom Stannis killed
  • Myrcella, Lannister or Baratheon, depending on your allegiance, the young daughter of Queen Cersei who was sent to Dorn to be betrothed to a Dornish prince, but who is murdered by poison by the vengeful consort of another Dornish prince, who himself was killed by a man of the Lannisters
  • Jon Snow, Commander of the Night Watch (and fan favorite and apparently the biggest shock of the night, though I don’t know why since he meets this fate at the end of the fifth book)

That’s four major characters in a single episode. So major that two of these deaths, Stannis and Selyes, effectively close off an entire subplot, with Stannis’s effort to claim the throne for himself ending in utter bloody defeat.

I don’t mention Arya Stark, youngest surviving daughter of Ned Stark, (Ned, who you might remember was beheaded by Joffery in an act of malicious cruelty that Joffery reveled in). In the finale, she kills a man out of vengeance for that man’s killing of her first sword master. She’s been training to become a Faceless Man, which is akin to a ninja, a stealthy assassin that does his work then disappears. Except she didn’t have permission to kill the man she killed, so her punishment is…blindness.

This doesn’t begin to cover the other deaths that happened this season, the most brutal of which was the death of Shireen, Stannis’s daughter. Stannis, in a moment of blind faith to the new god he worships, sacrifices his only daughter by burning her at the stake, believing the sacrifice of king’s blood will bring him victory. Did I mention that Shireen is (was) eleven, maybe twelve?

Are you catching all of this?

It’s insane. And this is just the show. The books have a far greater number of characters. It’s a cast of well over a thousand characters. It’s a huge amazing epic that I’m not sure has ever been attempted in modern fantasy novel/series history.

And I won’t bother to read it.

And by the way, I might be done with the show as well.

Why? Because as I watched the season five finale, it dawned on my why I’ve felt less and less interested in investing time into this brilliantly complex story. It’s all about empathy.

Let’s baseline a little bit before we go on. What is the primary purpose of a character driven story? To make you empathize with the protagonist so that you care what happens to him/her. Think Harry Potter. There was another large series, lots of characters, several deaths (though rather bloodless compared to “Game of Thrones”). Kids, and adults, gobbled these books up. They would pick them up at midnight on release night and swallow them whole, unhinging their jaws like starving python. Why? Empathy.

The simple fact is that Martin, in his sprawling epic, has repeatedly given us characters for which he elicits from us empathy. He lets us get close to these characters, let’s us see their struggles, gives us a brief amount of hope that they will persevere…then he kills them. Sometimes gruesomely.

(Oh, who are we kidding? Most times its gruesome.)

I understand that Martin is basing a fantasy series of a real-world morals. The War of the Roses was the initial basis for the first war we see in GoT. Yorks versus Lancasters in England became a template for Starks versus Lannisters in GoT. It’s not that hard a stretch. In England, the Lancasters won, and so in Westros the Lannisters won. So I get it. High fantasy without the clear cut definition of black and white, good and evil. This is not the Lord of the Rings.

And yet, without some character around with whom the audience can rally and put their hopes for a win for the good guys, what are we left with? We’re left with twists and turns and plot yanks that no one sees coming, to the often fatal demise of its characters. We’re left with maybe two characters for whom we can empathize, Daenerys and Tyrion. For now. There’s no guarantee that they’ll survive the series. In whom should we out our feelings? Who will be left at the end of this sprawling epic, and will we even care? As all others perish, so too does our patience and interest. Why should we continue to invest in a show that promises us nothing but pain and misery? So we can talk about it over the watercooler the next day?

No, thank you. I think I’m watercoolered out.

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