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'Game of Thrones' Was Doomed from the Start

How 'A Song of Ice and Fire' set the HBO series up for failure.

by Peter Slattery
May 20 2019, 6:36pm

Wikimedia/HBO

Last week, a petition asking for HBO to "Remake Game of Thrones Season 8 with competent writers" lit up the internet. Though HBO is almost certainly not going to fix an entire season of its behemoth ice zombie fire dragon show, the Change.org entry went viral anyway, garnering more than one million signatures and plenty of write-ups online. The fight for a season eight redo may be futile, but the disappointment is understandable. For many fans, this last batch of episodes has been frustrating, predictable, and largely unsatisfying outside of some major plot points coming to fruition.

Still, the show's writers aren't completely to blame for this mess. The sad fact is, author George R. R. Martin may not be able to pick up the pieces in the two remaining books much better than series creators Benioff and Weiss did in the last season of Thrones. Writing "closer to the books," which the petition essentially calls for, will not fix Game of Thrones, because the books are broken too.

Before you yell "Dracarys," there's a perfectly reasonable explanation. In the book series A Song of Ice and Fire , Martin poses a big problem for his characters to solve: "How does one successfully wield power (ideally righteously) without getting murdered?" And it was cool to see Starks, Baratheons, and Lannisters try to play this game, even if they were often failing. The problem is, Martin never figures out an answer to his own question, never crafting characters who can convincingly answer it—they either die, or don't develop, or get replaced by people readers don't care about. The books seem as primed as the show to rely on a lot of convenient plot devices and magic to sort everything out in the end.

To recap: King Robert dies because he’s an incompetent drunk; Ned dies because he can’t play politics; Robb dies because he can’t make necessary sacrifices; Joffrey dies because he’s psychotic. Heck, Tywin keeps it pretty much 100 percent cunning and ruthless and he still gets popped with a crossbow bolt while on the toilet because he was too mean to his son. These killings were powerful (and entertaining) statements about the harsh truths of the world. They're dramatic and affecting moments in the books and the show. But the calculus of shocking character deaths eventually runs out of steam. The next phase of the plot after A Game of Thrones (book one), A Clash of Kings (book two), and A Storm of Swords (book three), needs to show how the new generation is going to handle power, but it fails to do this.

Instead, Martin just keeps hitting the same beats with critical characters in A Feast for Crows (book four) and A Dance with Dragons (book five). In these books, Arya and Tyrion move farther from the politics of Westeros and the continent itself. Daenerys doesn’t seem to be learning much from her challenges, as she fails to govern some cities, and then basically seems to run away from Essos all together. Though it's probably safe to assume Jon is resurrected in the books as he is in show, he dies because he, too, mismanaged power, alienating his immediate followers while focusing on farsighted coalition building. If he's getting a do-over in The Winds of Winter (the upcoming sixth book in the series), why? What has he learned?

Sansa has the most potential to be more interesting in the books, as we leave her in A Dance with Dragons learning politics and intrigue in the Vale. If she spends more time actually flexing this newfound power in the last two books, GRRM could really be developing a stunning character. Still, the door is also open for Sansa to end up suffering through a thoroughly unnecessary, brutal character beat like she does in the show, where she’s stuck with a psychopathic man-boy powerful husband figure Ramsay.

To make matters worse, Martin doesn't bring along multifaceted heavy-hitters in these books to replace our vanquished mains. As a writer, Martin describes himself as a "gardener," rather than an architect. He admits to mostly planting the seeds of characters and storylines, then writing the good bits. What this style has (perhaps inadvertently) led to by the later books is him telling stories about more and more characters who have less and less connection to Starks and Lannisters, the most intriguing people in this whole yarn. In the books, the Boltons and Freys are primarily just unsympathetic sock puppet bad guys, not really adding anything to the moral structure of the story. Cersei is pretty much full sociopath by the later books, too—honestly, is anyone still rooting for her by A Dance with Dragons? Martin introduces Greyjoy and Martell intrigue, but are power games in the Iron Islands and Dorne anywhere close to as interesting as the North and the Rock? And then GRRM also decides to diddle off to Essos for a bunch of painful chapters that never really lead anywhere. Nobody cares about Volantis, or Jon Connington, or any of this.

This last choice has perhaps particularly screwed over Benioff and Weiss. The Thrones co-creators have tried to pare down extra stuff and move the show into an endgame, like a chessboard with all the pawns and minor pieces taken out. The problem is, A Song of Ice and Fire currently doesn't feel like it's driving toward a finale at all. Martin mostly just ignores the main cast in the later books to develop new people with new versions of the problem, rather than have the central characters ever actually solve their issues. Benioff and Weiss say they are writing more or less according to the planned ending which Martin told them, even though GRRM's additions in the last couple of books have made that ending increasingly hard to accomplish. So we end up with a smaller, simpler, more sterile TV world, where the wheels really start coming off in the final season.

Ultimately, for these books and show to come to a satisfying end, someone needs to become a Robert the Bruce or a William the Conqueror, a medieval politician who understands the right balance of genuine public spiritedness, utter ruthlessness, general competence, coalition-building, loyalty-maintenance, and charismatic leadership to win as both of those men did. Dany seems primed for this, but keeps failing to figure it out in Slaver's Bay. Jon might be another candidate here, but can't get himself together up North. Sansa is a great choice, we just haven't even gotten to see her actually wield power in the books up to this point.

Martin has written himself into a corner, partially because his initial question is, well, a really hard question to answer, and none of his characters seem to be convincingly headed to solve it. Jon and Dany and Sansa aren’t really evolving into realistically powerful leaders—they’re simply unkillable until the very, very end because they’re part of a mystical prophecy. Westeros isn’t a world where we’re going to focus on teams of misfits questing to defeat faceless monster henchmen serving a one-dimensional giant evil bad guy, but, in the end, that's what HBO was left with.

While there's no more hope for the show, it's still possible Martin figures out how to bring these characters to a satisfying end in his remaining two books. At this point, though, it would be more exciting to see a peasant uprising kill all these goofballs. Unfortunately the show is a lost cause.

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Game of Thrones
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George RR Martin