Game of Thrones Was Bad and If You Liked It You Are Wrong
by David Ottlinger
I have always been a person out of step with his own, native culture. Most of the time I think the received wisdom on most subjects — be they political, social or artistic — ranges from misguided to catastrophically wrong. I open the newspaper to find it makes as much sense read backwards or forwards and that I have virtually no comprehension of the people with whom I share a country. Such opposition is perfectly comfortable to me and causes no distress.
But every now and then some conflict seems to me special. I find myself so unable to comprehend why my fellows act and believe as they do that I begin in some measure to doubt my own sanity. I find myself returning to the issue again and again. In moments of exhaustion, I resolve to leave it and live with the mystery. But I always break this promise to myself. Something tells me to be reasonable, that I’ve not yet thought of everything, that there must be something which I am missing, something obvious which would explain how everyone around me has come to such an opposite conclusion. So I resume the struggle, running over old arguments and inventing new ones, trying to understand just how we got so far apart.
This is how it feels in today’s America to hate Game of Thrones. When the show first aired, I remember remarking to a friend that I had reached a point in my life at which I was no longer interested in questing, and I would have been happy to leave it there. But over time I found the series increasingly difficult to ignore. People were not just watching the show; people were taking it seriously. It provided a vocabulary for political arguments.  It was ransacked for metaphors that showed up in the most rarefied atmospheres of respectable opinion journals and op-ed pages. Every looming threat became a White Walker. Every deferred conflict a “war to come.” Winter was always coming. Even while writing this piece, David French, Ben Domenech and Sohrab Ahmari could not manage to argue over the future of conservatism without a few choice references to the series.  Domenech argued that cultural liberalism was like the dreaded White Walkers, an unstoppable force which cannot be politely argued with but must be forcefully opposed. French countered that “the Valyrian steel that stops the cultural white walker is pluralism buttressed by classical liberalism…” These are grown men.
When I finally broke down and watched the show, I thought there must have been some mistake. The show everyone was talking about must be coming on right after the one I had watched: the one with the ponderous dialogue, dreadful plotting and bad cinematography. This could not be the series all the country’s best – or at least best paid – intellectuals were scribbling about. This could not be the most popular series in America.
The sense of perplexity has never left me. But I want to make a promise to the reader. I am not vain enough to believe that my tastes and distastes are interesting to other people, and I would not waste anyone’s time with a mere rant. So I will not merely describe my dislike of Game of Thrones. In today’s world, there are far too many critics who do far too much of that already. Instead I will offer something which may be of some actual use, a definite value judgment supported by arguments. To paraphrase Kant, I do not expect everyman’s assent, but I do demand it. Or in other words, you may have thought Game of Thrones was a good show, but you are wrong.
And where, really, do I begin? There are a thousand things large and small. Take, for instance, the White Walkers. Has there ever been a cinematic monster less satisfying, as profoundly un-intimidating as the ponderous, plodding, fragile White Walkers? When Domenech argued that cultural liberalism was like the White Walkers, he must have that liberalism is over-hyped and easily defeated. We are told these White Walkers are devastatingly powerful — unless they are poked with certain stones or tapped with certain swords in which case they simply shatter like cheap china. You have to really marvel at the writers’ decision, on the first meeting between a White Walker and one of our characters, to have a Walker not only completely destroyed, but inadvertently destroyed by the least physically impressive character in the show. It was as if they were actively trying to remove all tension from their looming threat. Then, as though to solidify this point, in the first real fight between a character and a Walker, Jon Snow once again breaks a Walker into ice chips, totally by accident. (For good measure the same fight also established that all White Walkers move like they have advanced rheumatoid arthritis.) After that White Walkers inspired no feeling in me but boredom. I just can’t manage any dread at a creature that will trudge slowly towards you, only to fly pieces as soon as it pricks its finger. There is a possibility that if you suddenly found yourself ten yards away from a rampaging White Walker, and you stood very still for several consecutive minutes, it might be actually be able to do you harm, but it would probably slip and hurt itself in the process. In the case of an invasion, a small division of well-disciplined cub-scouts, armed with feather dusters, should have been able to drive them all out of Westeros.
But complaints such as these, of which there are many, are not essential to understanding the series’ failure and harping too much on them would be unfair. The real problems of Game of Thrones concern its very structure and influence not just an isolated element of the story, like the White Walkers, but its whole design. Taken together they doomed the show’s chances of achieving any artistic success.
Some of these more pervasive problems concern the show’s style and genre. In particular I always detected a certain tension between the story of Game of Thrones and the conventions of the fantasy genre. Watching the show, I could never shake a certain vague sense of disbelief. The costumes were richly designed and the set design, apart from one notorious coffee cup, was meticulous, but I could never shake a sense that none of it was real. I felt that familiar and unsatisfying feeling of watching actors playing characters rather than watching characters.
Over time I was able to articulate the source of this unease by comparing Westeros to an equally fantastic place that I had accepted as real both on the page and on the screen, namely Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Tolkien’s world, whether in his novels or in Peter Jackson’s highly successful adaptations, felt more convincing, paradoxically, because it was more completely alien. Men like Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were highly trained classicists and medievalists, and they brought a sense of deep historical time to their work. All the societies of Middle Earth are thoroughly pre-modern. Frodo and the other hobbits naturally defer the great lords and ladies that they meet in their travels as their superiors. They accept their station and harbor no ambitions of reaching a higher one. They are totally at home in an aristocratic world, and define themselves, comfortably, in aristocratic terms.
The denizens of Westeros are in this respect completely different. The problem is that all of our characters are really, just below the surface, modern Americans. I would stop short of saying that Game of Thrones was really and fundamentally an American show. That would invalidate the contributions of the largely British cast who were overwhelmingly excellent and generally the best part of the show. For that matter it would invalidate the contributions of the European landscapes, which are so much a part of the show as to become characters in their own right. But the source material is obviously deeply American. And the source material inevitably calls a lot of the shots.
The Americanness of our characters manifests itself in their values, their preoccupations and the way they understand society. Middle Earthers are, as authentic pre-moderns, largely pre-occupied with honor, hierarchical status, reputation and the fate of their clan or nation. The inhabitants of Westeros are concerned with wealth, power, sex, consumption, getting ahead in their careers and other largely individual pursuits. In case anyone failed to notice this, Littlefinger, himself a character who perspicuously embodies these values, bluntly drives the point home in a long speech at the end of the episode “The Climb.” Society, for Littlefinger, is a ladder. “Only the ladder is real,” he intones, making Hortatio Alger blush, “The climb is all there is.” He claims that the worth or admirability of a person consists totally in how far they can climb and dismisses all those who do not attempt it as suckers and dupes to a false morality. Like Edmund, nature, red in tooth and claw, is his goddess and he will not stand in the plague of custom. Most of the show validates this Algerian worldview. Westeros is superficially an aristocracy but more deeply a ruthless meritocracy. Its inhabitants compete for individual worldly success and status. This makes the fantasy element feel painted on and shatters the illusion of Westeros’s exotic otherness far better than any misplaced latte ever could.
Then there is the matter of Game of Thrones’ controversial use of explicit sex and violence. In principle I have no objection to such things and many outstanding shows have involved a great deal of both. (Vide The Sopranos.) But critics are right to point to the show’s sex and violence as weaknesses. The problem is not that they exist at all but how they always seem to be trapped between different sensibilities.
The uses of sex and violence in film are many, but we can make a broad distinction between two general kinds. On one side are depictions of sex and violence that are meant to shock and disconcert an audience. Consider the violence in, say, Saving Private Ryan. Graphically depicting the horrors of war, the violence of this film is not meant to amuse or entertain. Rather the violent scenes are meant to make us feel, as the soldiers did, that we would rather be anywhere else. In this category also belong such memorable moments as Cornwall’s blinding of Gloucester, “out, vile jelly!”, and the riot at the end of Peter Brooks’ Marat/Sade. On the other side of the distinction belong the kinds of violence with which we are familiar from action movies and many westerns and which are a large part of the appeal of all the Marvel franchises. Such depictions of violence are meant to be voluptuously enjoyed. Watching Daredevil or Captain America wail on a group of faceless bad guys is just good, visceral fun.
The two sensibilities can be blended. It is part of the genius of Tarantino, for instance, to invite us to enjoy graphic violence and then confront morally us with the fact that we do enjoy it. But what we have in Game of Thrones is sex and violence that attempt to live on both sides of the line in ways that are far less coherent and foil the audience’s ability to relate emotionally to the events depicted. Never is this ambivalence clearer than when the show focuses on Littlefinger’s prostitutes. Are these exploited women, whose lives reflect the harsh realities of the sex trade? Or are they sexy, fashionable people whose promiscuity and lives of easy luxury we should envy? The show can never quite decide. One might wish to say that they can be both. No one, after all, is entirely a victim or entirely responsible, and no life consists only of harshness or pleasure. But the problem does not dissolve so easily, because the show adopts these different attitudes toward the same aspects of these women’s lives. Sometimes prostitution is depicted as demeaning and an affront to the dignity of those who work in it. At other times it is depicted as a good deal for those that can get it, and one that the women enjoy and possibly even find liberating. This makes it impossible for the audience to adopt a coherent attitude toward these characters. We are asked to toggle back and forth between empathy and jealousy until, ultimately, we can’t really feel anything at all.
Ultimately, a similar dissonance arises between the audience and Westeros as a whole. Is Westeros a bleak world of horrors and bitter injustices or a colorful world full of adventure and opulent pleasures that we look forward to visiting on Sunday nights? Again, the show runners seem loathe to make a decision. Game of Thrones could have been a pulpy adventure story full of nudity and violence, one that maintained a glib tone and had generally low moral stakes. Or it could have been a somber morality play with a serious tone and high moral stakes. But its attempt to be both makes it neither.
One moment particularly stands out to me and makes clear what the show might have been. I found in general that the violence in the show was unsatisfying for the reasons I have been describing. Unsure of the effect it wanted to make it neither shocked not enthralled. But when Jamie Lannister had his sword hand unceremoniously hacked off, I sat straight up. It was off-handedly brutal (no pun intended), gratuitous and completely plausible. You can easily imagine Jamie’s surly captors engaging in such casual violence. Everything changed for that character in the space of a moment, and his shock was our shock.
Then a most remarkable thing happened. The show almost immediately went to credits which were accompanied by a ribald ballad that had been heard earlier in the episode only now, performed in an anachronistically modern rock arrangement, complete with electric guitars. I felt as if I had been poked in the eye. For once the show had actually managed to elicit a clear emotional response and it immediately set about foiling it. This comical and off-puttingly anachronistic song immediately cleared away the impact left by the previous scene. This was more than ordinary artistic failure – it was sabotage; cowardice. The show runners knew they had created something shocking and disturbing and instead of trusting the audience to sit with that emotion, they immediately provided relief from it. Such decisions make the show easier viewing, but they rob it of any lasting impact as well.
But the most serious issues with Game of Thrones concern its structure. I was amused when I realized that if there was one television series to which Game of Thrones could be compared, it would probably have to the old science fiction serial Babylon 5. On the surface they may not seem to have much in common. Game of Thrones is the cool kids table of the lunch cafeteria of television, filled with a lot of sexy people with perfect hair obsessing over their problems and taking themselves very seriously. Babylon 5 is more at home with the nerds in the corner. It was self-consciously intellectual and idealistic, in some ways sentimental and bashful in the way it dealt with sexuality, all of which is in sharp contrast with Game of Thrones. Furthermore all the budgets for all five seasons of Babylon 5 probably couldn’t cover what it takes to animate one CGI flying dragon.
But beneath the surface the two shows have a startling amount in common. Both tell a long story, stretching across multiple seasons which concerns a looming threat and the different political factions which will have to unify to meet that threat. Game of Thrones focuses on different kingdoms which will have to unify to face the threat of the White Walkers and possibly Daenerys Targaryen. The story of Babylon 5 concerns different species with their own empires on different worlds who must unify to defeat the Shadows, an encroaching race of powerful aliens. In both shows the various factions are more concerned with old scores and long-standing rivalries than with their own, collective long-term good. Accordingly the two series tell strikingly similar stories in strikingly similar ways despite the strong differences in style and presentation. This makes comparison between the two illuminating and useful.
One aspect of Game of Thrones which is highlighted by the comparison is its inability to play by its own rules. Babylon 5 is masterful in efficiently setting up the chessboard. The first episode establishes all the major players. The warring factions are the humans, the Psi-Corps (who exist within the human government), the Narn, the Minabari and the Centauri. The Shadows provide the looming threat, and the Vorlons are a powerful force for good and counter-balance to the Shadows who have no analogue in Game of Thrones. What stands out is that across five seasons these remain, with a few exceptions, the major players. Each has an arc that is appropriate to each civilization and what happens at the end of the story is never inconsistent with what we were told at the beginning.
If only Game of Thrones had been so careful. What strikes me about main plot of Game of Thrones is how often major players are being introduced and eliminated, and how often they experience violent and implausible shifts in fortune. Before season 3, you have to listen very hard to notice the existence of the Tyrells. In season three they are suddenly absolutely central, the Lannisters but more so. Meanwhile we are told constantly that the defining quality of the Lannisters is that they are incredibly wealthy, until, very suddenly, they aren’t anymore. The Dothraki and the Starks simply collapse. But most remarkable is the sense one gets that one can’t step ten feet in Westeros without tripping over some new army. Someone has always carelessly left a major fighting force lying around. Sometimes it’s in Dorn, sometimes in Meereen, sometimes north of the wall. Never has a land been so thick with troops.
The effect of all this constant change is to render every plot twist essentially meaningless. Why would we care what the current balance of power is when it can suddenly be reshuffled with some new infusion of new players? Any one of these sudden shifts may have been justifiable but collectively they create so much uncertainty that the audience can do nothing to anticipate what will happen next. There are no expectations to foil.
It’s worth pausing to note that this unique quality of uncertainty created a key aspect of the enthusiasm for Game of Thrones: the constant dread, nail biting and speculation about what would happen next. Who would die? Who would rise? Who would fall? It was literally anyone’s guess because none of it made any fucking sense anyway. So fans were free to speculate like gamblers betting on the Superbowl. (Though the comparison may be unfair to gamblers who at least have some basis for the decisions they make.) And this is why I will not hear any complaints from and Game of Thrones fans who want to tell me that Bran sitting on the Iron Throne is an “unsatisfying” ending. I’m sure it was, but that misses the point. Any ending to Game of Thrones was inevitably going to be unsatisfying. For an ending to be satisfying it has to fit into some narrative and thematic structure. But the narrative of Game of Thrones was so helplessly muddled by the end that there was nothing for the ending to fit into. So of course the ending was unsatisfying. What was there, after all, to satisfy?
But Game of Thrones’ problems do not end there. The show could have also learned much from Babylon 5 in terms of pacing and development. Bab 5 was an old-fashioned show that ran for over twenty hour-long episodes a season. Of these twenty-odd episodes, some were devoted to telling the main story and some were devoted to stand-alone stories which had little or no impact on the main plot, a format that some viewers may recognize from The X-files. Such a pattern had many advantages. The inclusion of unrelated stories with characters that made one-time appearances made the world feel appropriately vast and lived in. And when, after several such episodes, the audience rejoins the main plot, there is a sense that time has past and the characters may have been concerned with other affairs.
Game of Thrones had seasons of ten episodes or fewer and that always felt inappropriate to a show telling such a massive story with such an expansive tableau (far more expansive, as we’ve already seen, than that of Babylon 5). This gives us a story that always feels like too much and too little. So many sub-plots and minor characters compete for our attention that each one seems to be treated inadequately. I particularly noted this in the story line with Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch. This should have been the story of Jon slowly maturing, coming into his own and taking command. But instead, in what feels like no time at all, he arrives at the Wall, challenges the leadership of the Night Watch, takes over and then departs. The story is so compressed that we hardly have time to react to one change before we are confronted with another. A similar problem plagued the story of Arya’s training with the Faceless Men. She resists their lessons again and again, and then, suddenly, submits. Why exactly she suddenly accepts their discipline is not at all clear because its not at all developed.
Of course such stories with their intense inward focus and their concern with the subtle, conflicting motivations and self-deceptions of individual characters were never going to get the soil they needed with only ten hours to go around. Very clearly this was a case of economics taking precedence over storytelling. HBO was not going to add more episodes because doing so would mean dropping the budgets and spectacle had become a hallmark of the Game of Thrones brand. As budgets ballooned seasons even shrank to fewer than 10 episodes. Character development was shoved to one side in favor of elaborate battle sequences. This basic problem doomed the series from the start. The refusal of the show runners to either prune the characters down to something manageable or else provide the space they needed prevented even the possibility of a telling a successful story.
But even if somehow everything I have already described could have been forgiven, we have still to confront the show’s most unforgivable mistakes. I speak, of course, of the show’s massive, insulting plot-holes. I don’t feel I am exaggerating when I say these alone may have ruined the show for me.
Plot-holes are a delicate matter. No one wishes to be a pedant. We know that no story, however realistic, is without some contrivance. But what have in Game of Thrones is not mere contrivance, but plot-gaping-chasms that you could drive a caravan of eighteen-wheelers through. They are plot-holes so large that they collectively imply that our characters cannot see ten minutes into the future or an inch in front of their faces. I will limit myself to a few examples.
Season 3 finds Daenerys Targaryen in a distant land, still ambitious of claiming the Iron Throne but with few means of accomplishing it. She has no money or troops, only the prestige of being Khaleesi and a Targaryen and her three still-fledgling dragons. She has the opportunity to find an army in Slaver’s Bay. The Unsullied are a disciplined and effective force of slave-soldiers which their owners and trainers sell to the highest bidder. Having no treasure to purchase such a force, she elects to trade one of her dragons for an army of the Unsullied. This is a difficult decision for her. In order to get what she needs to make her challenge and reclaim her kingdom, she has to give up something of deep value to her both strategically and personally. So far so good.
Then something incredibly stupid happens. The slave-trader Daenerys is dealing with stipulates that he is willing to sell all of his troops in exchange for one dragon. This made me, alone in my living room, physically throw my hands up in the air in frustration.
Consider this deal from the slave-trader’s perspective. He is agreeing to a trade that will leave him sitting across the table from his client with no troops and one juvenile dragon that does not know him and will in all likelihood not obey him. Daenerys — who loves her dragons like her own children — would then just walk away, ruefully mourning the dragon she left behind while simultaneously leading two dragons and an army. Being a sweet, trusting sort of slave-dealer, he believes this will all actually happen. Meanwhile Daenerys’ supposedly whip-smart political advisors anxiously counsel her not to make such a deal, which a moderately intelligent child could see had no intention of honoring, thus destroying those characters forever. Anytime in the future that they got high-handed or didactic with Daenerys, she should have just reminded them of that time they actually thought she was going to leave her most prized possession behind and not seize the blindingly obvious opportunity to immediately steal it back.
Then the only thing that could possibly happen happens and Daenerys immediately takes her new troops and two remaining dragons to recover her one forfeited dragon. I hoped against hope that there would be some kind of twist to make it less insulting, but in vain. She basically just takes advantage of the fact that her antagonist has absolutely no ability to calculate the consequences of his own actions. The monumentally stupid slave-dealer dies a deserved death, while Daenerys gets her troops and keeps all her dragons. The story declines to force her to make any difficult or interesting decision about what she values and fails to enforce any real trade-off. All that we learn is that several of our characters are much dumber than we’d been lead to believe.
A similarly aneurism-inducing “plot twist” occurs in Season Five. By this time Tommen is crowned King of Westeros, and those surrounding the young king are jockeying for influence and position. In particular Tommen’s mother, Queen Cersei, decides she must remove his wife Queen Margaery, for very inadequate reasons largely having to do with a heretofore unknown prophecy. This is already bad enough, but the real problem is the plan Cersei concocts. She decides to align herself with some religious fanatics who decry decadence, selfishness and negligence among the elite and powerful. She then allows them to place Queen Margaery on trail and have her imprisoned.
It is perhaps worth noting that actual monarchs tend not to do things like this. Indeed Elizabeth I shrank from killing Mary Queen of Scots even after she had made a handful of attempts to take her life and topple her government. Elizabeth still insisted it was never legitimate for citizens to kill a sovereign Queen, and one can see why she would be so keen on such a doctrine, only fifty years before Charles lost his head. But before anyone complains that I am expecting too much realism from the dragon show, let me again state that I would settle for characters who made even the mildest effort to anticipate the consequences of their own actions. Cersei is obviously not such a character as she apparently gives no thought to elevating a power-hungry zealot who is dedicated to rooting out the kind of corruption that she herself embodies as well or better than Margaery and investing him with the power to depose and judge Queens. So, once again, the only thing that could possibly happen happens, and the religious reformers turn on Cersei, have her imprisoned and take control of the government.
This makes a suitable place to end my essay because, I confess, it was also where I ended with the show. After such an obviously, ham-fistedly pre-ordained “twist,” I could endure no more. I soldiered on for a few more episodes, but my interest had been mortally wounded. I can only be insulted so many times. It was just a little while after this that I heard the show was starting to get bad.
As much as I hated Game of Thrones, I am very glad I watched as much of it as I did. I feel this way not because it gives me insight into anything it was actually supposed to be about (which it does not), but because I feel it gives me insight into all of you. No television show seemed to channel the zeitgeist so well or play so nimbly on the anxieties of the public. Undoubtedly it will have a great significance for future social historians out of all proportion to its artistic merit, much as the novels of Horatio Alger do for historians of the Gilded Age. And it is because of you, the fans, that I am still moved to think and write about the show now that it has passed into history. I have to think about the differences between us that allowed and even compelled you to continue when I could stomach no more.
So why didn’t you stop? I don’t know how anyone will respond (should anyone respond at all), but I do have experience in this kind of argument. What usually happens is that my interlocutors completely collapse under the slightest pressure. They decline to engage any of my arguments and, say, propose adequate motivation for this character’s action or defend that that piece of direction. This is usually followed by a lot of looking at their shoes and muttering, shame-faced, about how they never thought it was a “good” show (they supply the quotation marks themselves), it was only that they liked it. They knew it had flaws, but they didn’t care. There were dragons and sieges and nudity, and it was a fun ride.
It is partly in virtue of such defenses that I say that Game of Thrones fans do not merely have a different standard but are actually wrong. If I have a fundamental message it is that you, the fans, deserve more. There is no reason that Americans should have to drop their standards so low and overlook so much in order to be entertained. Our anxieties about ecological disaster, declining international order and the corrupting influences of power are reasonable and well founded. They should be explored and articulated in art worthy of such serious concerns. There is no reason to accept lazy plotting and inconsistent style.
No one, I am told, was happy with the end of Game of Thrones. What they should have seen was that such dissatisfaction was preordained. My hope is that next time, fans will remember their disappointment and demand something better. If our politics and culture are awful, at least the fantasy versions of them should entertaining. In these dreadful times I believe we all deserve at least that much.