Can Game of Thrones Still Surprise Us? – Wisecrack Quick Take
Welcome to this Wisecrack Quick Take on Season 7 of Game of Thrones.
Written by: Michael Luxemburg
Edited by: Andrew Nishimura
Produced by: Emily Dunbar & Jacob Salamon
Can Game of Thrones Still Surprise Us? – Wisecrack Quick Take
Hey Wisecrack, real life Jared here. I know you got used to only Rick and Morty quick takes, but the BIGGEST SHOW ON EARTH just wrapped its seventh season and man were there were some AMAZING moments: The Jaime/Tyrion reunion, the incredible battles, Lady Olenna’s death scene, Arya murdering the Frays, the zombie dragon goin HAM. Plenty of awesome stuff, but … to be honest, in our humble opinion, the show just doesn’t feel as magical anymore. And of course we had to ask ourselves: Why?
Game of Thrones, by virtue of adapting George R.R. Martin’s revolutionary series, got us all hooked by refusing to play by the rules of the fantasy genre, or even normal TV. It took turns we never saw coming, killed characters we were SURE would be around for the endgame, and turned the tropes of the fantasy genre inside out. It was that willingness to show the ugly side of the lords and ladies that made us fall in love. These days? It’s feeling a little Eagles Rescue The Boys from Mt. Doom. Why? Maybe it’s because Game of Thrones set up the unique, specific rules for its world, made promises about what we could expect (or not expect) and now that it’s time to pay off those ideas … well it feels like a different show. So let’s talk about whether or not Deanerys and friends have lost their etdge in today’s quick take on Game of Thrones season 7, and as always … Spoilers ahead.
Before we can explain what’s going on with Game of Thrones, we need to talk about story structure; three act structure to be specific. Even if you’ve never heard that phrase before, you’ve seen it in action because almost every story in the world follows it. Without getting into too much detail we can describe three act structure like this. In ACT 1 the major players and central conflicts are introduced. In ACT 2 event complicate those conflicts. Finally in ACT 3 the conflicts are resolved. These categories are used to describe parts of a story, so while they may seem like arbitrary cutoff points, they are indicative of patterns we see in almost every story. So let’s take that basic structure and apply it to Game of Thrones.
Act 1 is the first two seasons, we meet the Lannisters, the Starks, Daenerys, and the whole gang. We also learn about the Iron Throne, and how everybody wants it. We even see the White Walkers. The first act culminates with each side taking position and making their moves. Act 2 is the war itself. We see the costs, Robb at the red wedding, Stannis burning his daughter, Joffrey getting poisoned; all with the undead threat looming in the background. These days we’re firmly in Act 3. Jon and Dany are preparing to face off with the white walkers, while Cersei is going crazy trying to hang on to her newfound power. The show pretty much nailed acts one and two. Not only did they establish character and conflict, they did so in creative ways that challenged our expectations. After season one, who really thought we’d all grow a soft spot for Jaime Fucking Lannister? The thing is, all of those twists and turns set us up to expect an ending that would follow the same, unpredictable pattern; sounds weird I know, but that’s what made it so great! In season 7 that’s turning into a bit of a challenge, so let’s see how it happened.
The show made two MAJOR promises early on. First, was a dedication to breaking down the attractiveness of the fantasy world. It’s not all gowns and gallantry. Instead it showed us the dark underbelly and the cruelty that infects every inch of Westeros. The knights aren’t paragons of justice. They’re rapists and murderers. The beautiful prince isn’t kind, he’s a spoiled monster. Honor doesn’t help you reach new heights, it puts you in jail. Magic isn’t something friendly, it involves sacrifices and shadow monsters. The “good guys” who fight for justice, don’t always win – in fact they usually die, because everyone else is playing dirty. The Lancelot Guinevere style forbidden love between a knight and his queen … that’s incest! This is the show that killed Robb Stark, who would be the hero in ANY other fantasy story, at his uncle’s dang wedding. A double subversion, since Robb was living out the narrative of love overcoming all … only it didn’t. The Lannisters cut off Ned’s head, because he was too loyal. They shoved a kid out a window for seeing something he shouldn’t have. These moments were more than just cool bits of TV. They were signals that Game of Thrones was NOT business as usual.
That brings us to the second major promise. The show promised us that actions would have consequences. Shit we see that in EPISODE ONE. A man shirks his Night’s Watch duties and Ned decapitates him, no questions asked. That’s the world of the show. Nothing comes without a cost, and even the greatest victories can have ramifications the characters never expected. There’s a storytelling value at play there. It means that everything matters. That’s why this is the show that launched a million conspiracy theories. For several seasons, consequences were the law of the land. For example. Why is no one mad at Cersei for blowing up the sept and killing Margarey Tyrell? Someone we KNOW was HUGELY popular. Do they just not know? Maybe it’s because they’re mad at Cersei, or afraid of her, but these folks seem like they’re doing just fine.
We can also see this in how the show handles travel. These days the logistics push the limits of plausibility. For instance, Gendry turns into Usain Bolt and sends a raven, at a speed far greater than an unladen swallow, which crosses Westeros, a continent described as the size of South America, to Dany who flies her dragons back across the continent all before the magnificent seven can even get frost in their beards. It’s not just that fast travel strains credulity. It actively harms the dramatic action of the show. When travel stops being a factor, so does the danger of traveling. One huge element of the travel times in Thrones’ early storytelling is the implication that something could go wrong on any trip, bandits, stone men, slavers, whatever. That risk means that we can imagine a HUGE number of possible outcomes, but in a fast travel world that’s not really on the table.
All of that nuance, the repercussions, the sense that anything can happen at any moment is now gone. It got traded for expedited plotting. And, well… It’s a trade that makes sense. There were only 13 episodes left when the season started, but it’s changed the nature of the show. Game of Thrones was so interesting for the first 5 seasons and change because it was decidedly NOT your daddy’s fantasy story. Now … well this is something any parent could recognize. All the tired and familiar tropes that Game of Thrones was deconstructing are back in full force. Unambiguous evil? Check. Unkillable chosen ones? Check. Deus ex Machina rescues? Check. Check. Check.
This isn’t a show heading in new, different directions. This is a show that is checking third act boxes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s checking them in a way that defies the narrative framework we spent five years internalizing. Even the finale, which was pretty dang good, showed off these problems. As the season came to a close we got clear sides, something Game of Thrones has been reluctant to offer us. Now all of the characters we like are on one side, there’s no more room for ethical ambiguity. So why is this happening? Well it goes back to that three act structure. Thousands of years of storytelling, indicate that to create a satisfying narrative, the show needs to have all the work that Dany, Jon and others have put in to change the world actually pay off. Unfortunately, that’s how ALL fantasy stories end. The good guys ALWAYS win against incredible odds. The subversion doesn’t work anymore when it comes to the endgame. Even the craziest Bran is the Night King type ending, doesn’t really subvert anything. An ending where, this was all inevitable because of magic, or time travel, undermines the theme of agency in the show, and is just another fantasy trope for the show to fall back on.
Unfortunately, it seems the show can’t get to the ending it wants while still distrupting the fantasy narrative space. From the beginning, Game of Thrones has told us that we’re getting a different kind of fantasy story, but this past season it’s felt more Lord of the Rings than Sopranos, and honestly … it’s a bit disappointing. Look at the end of the day, It’s still a GOOD show, but it’s an action fantasy story, and that’s not what they promised us.
Thanks for watching Wisecrack. Peace.