Everybody’s up in arms about the just-completed seventh season of Game of Thrones. Apparently the producers rushed several plotlines, broke geographic continuity, and committed various other offenses against GoT fandom and THEY MUST PAY.
And in between the (mostly correct) raging mobs of rabid fans and the (entirely correct) coldly contemptuous crowds of GoT conscientious objectors I sit, contemplating the plight of the producers and how they made the very best of a very bad situation.
A Song of Ice and Fire is awful, and not just because of all the incest and rape, nor yet because of the GLACIAL pace GRRM moves at. (Look, George, when you said Westerosi Winters last forever, we didn’t think you meant we’d have to endure one IN REAL TIME.) There’s a more fundamental problem the series fell into:
GRRM bit off more than he could chew. He’s got too many viewpoint characters, too many dangling plot threads, and too many storylines stretched out for way too long. There’s just TOO MUCH to ASoIaF. Which is ironic, because the series became popular basically for being big.
To make his Epic Fantasy, GRRM took a bunch of real world things and amplified them. The two family conflict of The War of the Roses became the poly-sided War of Five Kings (which name undercounts the involved belligerent factions by at least three or four). Great Britain, a fairly biggish island, became the massive continent of Westeros. The 15-foot-high Hadrian’s Wall became The Wall, a 700 foot tall construct of ice 300 miles long. And so forth and so on. Pick any element of ASoIaF, and it’s likely some real world thing blown up WAY WAY BIG.
Which is fine. Even after you see behind the trick, it’s still entertaining. It’s still a compelling world to stage an Epic Fantasy in (and the primary reason people have stuck with the series, truth told).
It’s not the world that’s the problem, it’s the stories. See, it wasn’t enough for GRRM to build a massive series of insanely intricate overlapping stories that came together and broke apart and wound around each other like a vat full of foot-long spaghetti noodles. Just pulling that off would have cemented his position in the pantheon of Epic Fantasy writers in perpetuity. But George had to go one better: he had to prove how clever he was by utterly subverting and inverting traditional story structure.
ASoIaF isn’t a series of individual stories: it’s a monumental pile of anti-stories. He sets up audience expectations by telling 80% of a story then BZZZZZZZZT! What you thought was going to happen didn’t! He’s fooled you again!
Beat, beat, beat, hero’s in danger, time for the rescue and BZZZZZZZZZT! Hero loses his head and the psycho child villain wins.
Beat, beat, beat, and it’s time for the psycho child to take the throne and marry the beautiful princess and consolidate power… BZZZZZZZZZZZT! He gets poisoned and dies in front of the entire court.
Beat, beat, beat, two kids meet and fall in love, and seem like they’ll get married and live happily ever after… BZZZZZZZZZZT! They’re murdered, their friends are all murdered, his mom is murdered, all their soldiers are murdered, everybody is murdered and their entire story amounted to nothing at all, just another pointless digression in a series overly full of such lengthy digressions, just another storyline that doesn’t pay off, that doesn’t satisfy the audience’s need for a coherent and satisfying narrative.
This is the trick of GRRM’s plotting: set up audience expectations, then SMASH THEM TO BITS! BZZZT! BZZZT! BZZZZZT! Don’t you see? Don’t you see how clever he is to keep misleading you again and again and again? WOW! WHAT A WRITER!
(In truth, this isn’t hard. All you have to do is signpost one ending, and deliver another. Incompetent writers do it by accident all the time. Doing it deliberately isn’t any great thing.)
The problem is, perpetual narrative interruptus can only be sustained for so long. Sooner or later, your series has to END. You have to have some kind of conclusion to the whole mess. Evil queen wins, foreign invader wins, or the Ice Zombies win and everybody else dies—SOMETHING has to happen. Some part of your story has to actually pay off.
The producers of the TV series have reached just this point: they’ve gone on long enough to where they have to cash the checks GRRM’s ego has been writing. They have to wrest some sort of story from the tangled mess GRRM’s handed them. They have to bring things to some kind of satisfactory ending. This entire season was an effort to do just that.
First step? Bump off or otherwise neutralize extraneous characters. Greyjoys? Sidelined. Dornish psycho ninja chicks? Killed off or locked up. Walter Frey’s inbred band of murderous freaks? FREAKING GONE. They got rid of all these extra, useless characters clogging up the narrative and concentrated on the three characters who really mattered: Jon, Daenerys, and Cersei. One of these three will inevitably end up on top. (That, or everybody dies and LOL nothing matters anyway.)
Second step? Get done with digressions. For the first time since the first book came out, there’s a real story that needs to be told, and it’s time to tell it, so all those storylines they’ve been dragging out forever needed TO GET DONE RIGHT NOW. Things needed to happen, so they stopped hinting that they’re maybe going to happen any episode now and BROUGHT THEM TO PASS.
Last step? GET TO THE REAL WAR. Everybody has known, from the very first scene of the very first book (released 21 years ago) that there was a war coming between the Ice Zombies and the world of man, and all this nonsense about the War of Five Kings was just a distraction from the real prize fight.
That’s right, the 1000+ pages of the first five books were just an overly long prologue to an EPIC FANTASY ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE. That’s the real story, so they stopped dinking around and got the Westerosi edition of The Walking Dead off the ground. The dead are here. Deal with it.
Fans who complain that the series has changed are entirely correct: it has. For one, the epic magic implicit in the world has finally manifested, and it’s time for Ice Zombies and dragons to meet on the field of battle and finally settle the issue of who’s going to run Westeros after this is all over: Ice or Fire. Fans who reveled in the no-magic Fantasy series are feeling a little put out, but tough damn luck. The magic was always going to manifest sometime, and that time is now.
Game of Thrones has finally begun moving along, and at a rapid rate. Instead of being mired in Mereen, things have started HAPPENING. The producers have, at long last, done what GRRM is congenitally unable to do: started to tell an actual story, complete with a beginning, middle, and END.
It’s time for the HBO series to end, and sometime in 2019 it will, for better or worse. The interminable wait will be over. Some fans may be put out by that, they may be missing the feeling of things spooling out forever with no end in sight.
Such fans shouldn’t be concerned. Judging by GRRM’s current rate of progress on the final two books, they have DECADES of interminable waiting to look forward to before the series is finally complete.