This is the time of year when I stretch myself across a bubbling lava pit in agony, unwilling to give up my foothold on either side, for I both love and hate Game of Thrones.
I’m a mad bad Byron for A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series that was adapted (more or less …) into the HBO series. I came to the series as a horror fanboy, having loved George R.R. Martin’s work in that area while being generally skeptical of high fantasy; I had grown increasingly bored of the genre’s calcified tropes. Which, it turned out, made me the perfect audience for ASOIAF. The series is often referred to as deconstructive, a saw-toothed machine that eats tropes and poops sadness. I get why that is, but I think it’s more reconstructive than deconstructive, not tearing the genre apart so much as reminding readers of why it was worth falling in love with in the first place. It’s not that being the hero is stupid, it’s that being the hero is hard, and you might fail at it. But that doesn’t mean the attempt is worthless. The genre had backed itself into a corner where it promised social rewards for doing the right thing. In book after book, if you were good—and in these books, it was easy as (hot) pie to be good—you would be king, and the land would prosper because of the king’s goodness. ASOIAF argues that it is not easy to be good, and that the rewards for being so are not automatic, but that this only makes it all the more powerful if you choose to do the right thing anyway. (“No chance, and no choice.”) It’s a very existential brand of romanticism. The truest of all knights is Brienne of Tarth, and she’s not even a knight. The truest of all lords is Davos Seaworth, born a nobody in Flea Bottom.
As such, the first time I heard the sweeping strings of the GoT theme and beheld the gorgeous, rippling, unfolding map of the show’s opening credits, I genuinely teared up. It was like finally sharing a long-kept secret with the world. Watching this story and these characters receive the widespread, household-name attention they always deserved has been genuinely magical.
That magic hasn’t gone away in the intervening years, at least not entirely. Even the weakest episode of the show still conjures it up. The cast is game, the sets and costumes are perfect, and, like I said, that score still gets me all weak at the knees.
But … but … BUT … the thing is, the writing has fallen off a cliff over the last few seasons, as they’ve both gone past the books and made alterations that have had frustrating ripple effects. There are two interrelated questions I’ve been posing to anyone who will listen since the end of last season: Why is Jon king? and Why is Tyrion Hand? I’ve yet to hear a satisfactory answer, and that’s a huge problem. Neither character earned those positions in season 6, either in-universe or as fictional characters on a dramatic trajectory. Jon behaved like a colossal dumbass at the Battle of Bastards, triumphing only thanks to Sansa’s intervention, and yet in the next episode, the northern lords acted like he was the second coming of Robb the Young Wolf, who got crowned after he won battles. Tyrion, meanwhile, spent the season making bad jokes at Missandei and Grey Worm while his vague policies failed, vaguely; when Dany named him her Hand anyway, it felt more like a box that needed to be checked than an organic outcome of the narrative we had been watching. To be clear, I’m not trying to be a smug, know-it-all book reader; I make these criticisms reluctantly, for I love Jon and Tyrion and wish them well. But their successes have to mean something, and if they’re not rooted in character and theme, they don’t.
After all, what’s kept ASOIAF afloat as Martin has flung the story in so many different directions is that iron scaffolding of theme and characterization. That’s precisely what the show has increasingly sacrificed. The icing is delicious, but the cake underneath it is stale. To twist Jon Arryn’s final words: The seed is not strong. Don’t get me started on what they did with Stannis, or Dorne, or ...
Yet I come back for more, because even a muddled version of this story is worthy of investment, and because, again, the cast and crew are putting in so much more effort and talent than the scripts deserve. I may miss Lady Stoneheart, but the sight in the trailer of Beric Dondarrion lighting his sword on fire to (presumably) shove it in a white walker’s face still stopped my heart. So I’m going to spend this season here at Deadspin, detailing those highs and lows, quivering before the former and shrieking at the latter. For better or worse, with the lumps taken along the way, we are reaching endgame: “an age of wonder and terror is upon us, an age for gods and heroes.” Let’s ride this Willy Wonka boat into the abyss together.
Emmett Booth writes about ASOIAF under the name PoorQuentyn on Tumblr and Twitter. He’s been published in Vulture, led panels at Ice & Fire Con and Con of Thrones, and appeared on podcasts including History of Westeros and the Boiled Leather Audio Hour.