Game Of Thrones just finished its seventh season and lots of people didn’t like it and it’s still basically the best thing on the television, so …. Huh. I guess, pick up the pace lesser television shows? Maybe make time for some frigging dragons or at least a eunuch, NCIS.
If you follow The Internet, you’ll know that people had a few issues with this most recent season of GOT, most notably the sudden introduction of hyperspace travel to what had previously been a gritty, realistic world. Characters would lunge back and forth across the continent within the span of an episode or two, and while the producers were careful to avoid discussing the length of time that passed between scenes, meaning it was all maybe technically possible, it didn’t feel great. In fact, the pacing of the entire season felt like it had accelerated way too much.
I suspect this was caused by the increasing gap in progress between the show and the books. While the first five seasons were based on the books and the sixth was based on what were probably fairly detailed notes from George R.R. Martin on the book currently in progress, everything past that (i.e. this season) seems to have been based on a fairly loose outline Martin has for the overarching plot of the show. And instead of filling that in with more politics or delightful weddings or fucking Dorne, the producers have evidently just shot from high point to high point. An increase in the pacing was probably necessary and welcome (fuck Dorne), but this past season it felt like they took things a little too far. We live in a world where The Hobbit was turned into a nine-hour movie. They probably had some time to show a few more conversations on boats.
But there’s a deeper problem at work here, something which is causing a disquieting sensation that the show seems broken now. No, not just the latest incest plot, that’s fine, fuck your aunts all you want, Cracked’s position on that has always been clear. No, what’s really happening is we are seeing a collision between two immutable laws of fiction which have lived side by side within the show for years. Recent events have forced these two laws into conflict with each other, and it’s the fallout from this collision which is making everything feel so weird now.
The laws are:
Realistic Stories Have To Kill Off Major Characters
What was the first major plot point of Game Of Thrones that made you realize something special was going on? The prostitutes? It was the prostitutes for you? Ok, sure. You do you.
Because for most other people it was the death of Ned Stark. For the first several episodes of Game Of Thrones, Ned Stark was clearly established as the primary protagonist. He was brave and honorable and had nice kids and a cool wife and he did what he thought was right. And about midway through the season, when he was taken prisoner by the villainous Lannisters, everyone familiar with fiction began quietly, even subconsciously, wondering how Ned Stark was going to get out of this one.
And then he got his head chopped off.
Holy shit! Clearly this was a different type of show entirely, and Martin would return to this blood-filled well again and again, brutally killing off major characters at weddings across the continent.
The reason this worked was that, as surprising as it was, it was still realistic and believable. Political machinations and assassinations and open warfare result in people dying, so we can’t be too surprised when it happens to major players. Large portions of Game Of Thrones are inspired by real history, which — spoiler — has a fatality rate of around 100 percent. Look at the War Of The Roses (which several elements of Game Of Thrones are based on.) That little conflict saw dozens of Edwards and Richards die each year, major players each one. A plausible depiction of that kind of conflict has to have major characters die. It’d look ridiculous without it.
And now one question. Answer it as quickly as you can. On Game Of Thrones, who was the last major protagonist to die?
The uh … hmmm. Is it Hodor? It’s Hodor, isn’t it? Is that major enough? He was certainly a big character. Not really major though, and it was quite a while ago.
Let’s talk about the second immutable rule of fiction at work here.
Traditional Stories Can’t Kill Off Major Characters
The whole point of a story is to read about interesting people doing interesting things. It’s more satisfying if we know something about the people doing amazing things — we don’t want to hear that some chump elf dropped the One Ring in Mt. Doom, because his army fought its way there and he was just the closest one to the precipice. We want to read about Sam and Frodo doing it, because we’d followed those characters and their discussions about potatoes for a long time. If we’d followed the chump elf for a thousand pages, that might be different. He’d be our hero, and we’d know a lot more about him, and we’d delight in seeing how he had finally become the chump he was always destined to become.
One big side-effect of this law is that if we follow a character for hundreds of pages, they will fairly predictably go on to do interesting things. It’s essentially a corollary to Chekhov’s Gun; if a character is introduced in the first act, they’ll have to do something by the third act. Readers pick up on this too; we know when characters are important and can often even predict what they’ll do long before they do it. The coward will become brave, the hero and romantic interest will kiss, the guy with a chainsaw for an arm will be killed with his own chainsaw. And when that hasn’t happened yet, no matter what dire situations our heroes find themselves in, we don’t feel like they’re in real peril. It’s called plot armor, and it’s the reason people found it so surprising when Ned Stark died. He was our hero! He had to do … something. Right?
This is probably why we haven’t had any major characters on the show die in a while now. They all have a role to play in the final season of the show.
Ok, so what? What’s the problem? You want Bran to die or something? Well, yes, but there’s more.
Game Of Thrones Combines Both These Type Of Stories
In Game Of Thrones, everything south of the wall can be airily summed up as “humans fucking each other over.” It’s a realistic political story, which generally follows the first law discussed above. Using examples from history, Martin was able to create beloved characters and hated villains and kill them off more or less whenever he wanted, because that’s what happens in a “humans fucking each other over” story.
North of the wall, we have a very different kind of story, something a lot closer to a traditional fantasy epic, in this case the “humans fighting ice-zombies” trope that lies at the core of 90 percent of the stories you’ve ever been told. It’s no coincidence that this story never blended in too much with the story south of the wall. Characters from each side didn’t cross back and forth or interact much with each other at all. Every now and then someone might send a raven to the other story, and the other story would read it and laugh and throw the raven in the garbage. (Is that how the ravens worked? I don’t think we’ve ever seen the details.) And this story north of the wall is following those rules of fiction which apply to traditional stories. Characters can die, but not the main ones; we need those around to deliver the ultimate blow at the end of the story to make that ultimate blow actually feel meaningful.
Now the two stories are merging, and suddenly it’s clear that all the vulnerable people in the gritty political back-stabaganza we had come to love and fear for, are actually heroes in an epic fantasy, immune to death until the very last pages. Think of all the improbable nonsense we’ve had to sit through this season. Jaime getting tackled off a horse instead of incinerated. Theon escaping death for the twentieth goddamned time. Arya and Sansa overcoming Littlefinger’s schemes with hilarious ease. And most damningly, seven named characters marching into the wilderness on the dumbest mission ever conceived, running into impossible, overwhelming danger, and six of them walking out. This is not the same show we started watching; Ned Stark would have died a dozen times over on that mission, and lost several thousand sons in the process.
You can argue that maybe this would all be better if Martin had written the details himself, that’d he’d gloss over or write around the improbabilities we’d seen this season. But the fundamental conflict between these two stories would still be there. We have important, previously very vulnerable characters who now for narrative reasons cannot die. No matter how well it’s done, everything about that type of story is going to feel at least a bit weird.
I’ll still watch the last season, though. So will you. What other socially acceptable venue do we have for watching aunt sex?
Chris Bucholz is a Cracked columnist and plans to die in the first act of whatever story he’s in. As the author of the amazing novels, Freeze/Thaw and Severance he thinks you should definitely go buy both of those now. Join him on Facebook or Twitter.