My (Potential) Narrative Problem with Game of Thrones

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Martin, Benioff & Weiss have killed their darlings. Well, more accurately they’ve killed our darlings. Our venerable author and esteemed showrunners have continued their every other season trend of suddenly offing a prominent Stark. First Ned, then Robb & Catelyn, and now, perhaps most painfully, Jon Snow. And we keep letting them, giving our tacit endorsement by continuing to not only watch but wholly consume every new book and episode. Apparently we are gluttons for punishment. Maybe then, a more apt characterization of our side of the symbiotic (possibly codependent) relationship is: “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

Of course the creators aren’t really killing their darlings. That phrase, attributed at times to Wilde, Faulkner and various others, consists much more of reducing unneeded, superfluous story elements that the author may be particularly fond of than it does eliminating his favorite characters. When citing the directive in his excellent and instructive work On Writing, Stephen King phrases it thus: “Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings).”

Our showrunners have done so and eliminated a substantial amount of content originating in the books, arguably streamlining the narrative and reducing clutter. This is a good thing. In the name of brevity, of good storytelling, of concluding this show in less than fifty hours of additional screen time, please, for pity’s sake, kill your darlings. Except that’s not what happened Sunday night during the season 5 finale. No, instead they killed Jon Snow. And herein lies our problem; to effectively startle and provoke audiences to strong reaction by continually killing characters, these characters must first be either beloved, engaging or interesting. Neither the author nor showrunners have any problem accomplishing this. Their success is what makes the loss so shocking and painful. But the inevitable side effect of killing your best characters is that you now have a story composed more and more of second tier players. And this weakens the story because it deprives it of that which is beloved, engaging and interesting.

Such is now the case at The Wall. One of our best characters is gone. This is particularly problematic because The Wall is essential to the ultimate end of the story. From the first scene the central premise is that the game of thrones is really irrelevant compared to the doom coming from north of The Wall. As such, this location has been key to the ongoing plot, and in order to make it compelling it’s been constantly occupied by at least one compelling character. But with both Sam and Jon gone in the course of an episode, who’s left? Davos and Melisandre are there at the moment, but they’re both secondary characters who have only been defined primarily in relation to Stannis and Shireen, also gone. Who then anchors us to this location?

Now, this is predicated on the belief that Jon Snow is in fact “all dead”, and not merely “mostly dead.” There’s a big difference, and right now the smart money is on mostly dead. The show as a whole has made too much of Jon’s character, his parentage in particular, for this to be his ultimate end. But if it is, that presents a large problem, my personal problem with the end of this season. For the first time since beginning to watch this show and seeing the repeated deaths of major characters, I don’t feel sadness, shock, outrage, loathing or empathy. I feel something far worse, something I’ve never felt during my entirety of watching the show and will actually be a major factor in whether or not I continue to watch in the future. I feel, in a word, indifferent.

I can think of no greater criticism. And it is not rooted in spite or bitterness at the loss of a personal favorite character, but concern that the story can continue to be compelling. How much can you take away before losing a critical part of the show, of the story? Over the last several seasons I considered Tyrion, Daenerys and Jon to be these critical parts, confident they’d be with us until very near the end and willing to follow whatever twist the show gave as long as they were involved.

I don’t believe Jon is really, truly dead, but until that’s proven I’m having a hard time caring.

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About Author

Garric Black is the co-founder of ShowVote and believes that one day all television programs will merge into a single unified consciousness. Until that time, however, he's maintained his cover by earning a Bachelor's degree in International Business and holding down a day job for an international logistics company. In addition, he will valiantly defend Zack Snyder's Man of Steel to the death, or 11 pm on a weeknight, whichever comes first.

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