[After spending this season, as with last, writing about Game of Thrones at The A.V. Club, I was in Europe during the finale, which meant my colleague Caitlin PenzeyMoog stepped in. But since I’ve reviewed every episode of the series, it seemed odd not to be weighing in, so below are my thoughts. They are from a book reader’s perspective, but ultimately carry no significant spoilers from material yet to be adapted into the series.]
Most television is didactic on some level: while ultimately no show can control how its audiences watch it, it embeds certain codes by which it should be interpreted. In early seasons, it teaches us things about itself, which we will then use to map out the journey as it gets deeper into its run.
Game Of Thrones’ early seasons—pulling from Martin’s own lessons in the novels—taught us that anyone could die, and that no one was immune from the type of tragedy that befalls those in or near or subject to power in Westeros. Its middle seasons amended this lesson to show us that there are no easy paths to power, sidelining characters like Daenerys and Arya on long journeys of self-discovery that distracted from their central goal. It trained us to watch Game Of Thrones as a non-linear exploration of power in its various forms, embracing its muddied morality and considering the consequences that befall all those who lay in its wake.
But television shows change, and with them their lessons. For five seasons, the show trained its audience to be on the edge of its seat wondering where the narrative could go next, but this season has been a retraining of sorts. Suddenly, there need to be easy paths to power (albeit with long roads taken to get there), because the show is near its end. Suddenly the morality needs to become less muddled in places, because the powers of Westeros need to be in a position to unite against the threat of the White Walkers (a “big bad” the show introduced in its very first scene, yes, but then trained us to forget about by developing so slowly). Suddenly, there are characters that can’t die, because the level of investment in their arcs—Jon’s rise from the dead, Arya’s two entire seasons in Braavos, Sansa’s torture at the hands of Ramsay—is too great for them not to play some type of role in the endgame ahead. Game Of Thrones has changed, and its sixth season was about retraining us to watch the more predictable show it’s become.
June 7, 2015
As noted earlier this year, my reviews of Game of Thrones have shifted to The A.V. Club, but I will continue to link them here for regular readers, concluding with this finale. Warning: These are reviews intended for book readers, so if you want to know absolutely no small details about the story as told in the books, you may want to steer clear.
Game of Thrones – “Mother’s Mercy” [The A.V. Club]
This fifth season of the show was, for me, defined by the convergence of trust. It was the season where both readers and non-readers had spent considerable time with the show and the characters, each with a firm grasp on the rules of this world, and each with their own opinions of how that world should be handled. And, because of the divergences from—and in some cases expansions beyond—the books, there were large swaths of storytelling in which reader and non-reader were on the same page judging the producers’ plans for these characters.
“The Dance of Dragons”
June 7, 2015
As noted earlier this year, my reviews of Game of Thrones have shifted to The A.V. Club, but I will continue to link them here for regular readers. Warning: These are reviews intended for book readers, so if you want to know absolutely no small details about the story as told in the books, you may want to steer clear.
Game of Thrones – “The Dance of Dragons” [The A.V. Club]
This question will be answered in the finale and in the seasons to come, but it echoes also in the other goal of “The Dance Of Dragons,” which is to pull the season’s most problematic storylines into thematic alignment. Stannis and Dany’s decisions are legible and offer clear consequences that pay off the dramatic stakes therein—both land as clear pivot points that set their characters on paths heading into the finale, and both are well-executed and engaging. But although there are similar stories playing out in King’s Landing and Winterfell, we spend our time here in Dorne and Braavos, which have struggled to connect this season for two separate reasons.
May 24, 2015
As noted last week, my reviews of Game of Thrones have shifted to The A.V. Club, but I will continue to link them here for regular readers. Warning: These are reviews intended for book readers, so if you want to know absolutely no small details about the story as told in the books, you may want to steer clear.
Game of Thrones – “The Gift” [The A.V. Club]
Game Of Thrones’ investment in gender roles is crucial to its storytelling, but it also tends to struggle at times through lack of context. If I were to describe Sansa as a sexual prisoner depending on men to help save her, that sounds some alarm bells—but when you consider it’s a woman waiting outside the gates to save her, and when you see how she works over Ramsay psychologically in their walk on the battlements, you see the show wants to separate Sansa’s larger arc from her situation. It wants us to see the forest for the trees, and to know that there is a future for this character, and that her future will not be as Ramsay Bolton’s abused wife. But it can be tough to depict this without having access to Sansa’s inner monologue, something the books could use to show resolve where the show must use dialogue or subtle acting that can often be lost in editing and the need to cram six or seven narratives into a given episode.
“The Wars To Come”
April 12, 2015
Over the past four seasons, I’ve very much enjoyed writing about Game of Thrones here at Cultural Learnings, and have been privileged to have a wide audience for those reviews. The subsequent conversations have been among my most rewarding, and I want to thank everyone who has read, commented, or otherwise engaged with my reviews during that period.
However, I was given the opportunity to take over from my friend and former colleague Todd VanDerWerff writing the “Experts” reviews for The A.V. Club, and therefore there will be no more reviews here at Cultural Learnings. It also means that if you are someone who has not read the books, these reviews may potentially be something you do not want to read—while they will not explicitly spoil future events, they are written for those who know what’s coming, and may occasionally make references to foreshadowing and other forward-looking developments. I apologize for this, but it’s a byproduct of the opportunity.
However, given that the comments can be a bit more fast and furious over there, I will be posting a link to the review each week, and I encourage anyone with any specific questions or comments to leave them here, and I’m happy to create a side dialogue if anyone desires it. Thanks for reading, and hopefully you’ll still find something of value in the new reviews in the new location.
Game of Thrones (experts): “The Wars To Come”
“We have reached a stage where reader and non-reader are closer than ever before. Each group comes to the text with similar levels of expectation, shaped by their respective understandings of this world and its characters. Readers, admittedly, still come with expectations that are based on what unfolds in the novels past this point, but those expectations have been destabilized such that some of them hold no clear authority over the expectations that non-readers have developed on their own. Where once readers had lengthy emotional connections to the text that outstripped those only recently encountering the story, non-readers may now have been diehard fans for four years, growing in number as the show evolved into a mainstream phenomenon. And while there are more readers than ever before (I certainly didn’t use to see people reading the books on public transit before it premiered), they’re a different kind of reader, one for whom the show was likely the entry point.”
“The Mountain and the Viper”
June 1, 2014
“Traditions are important – what are we without our history?”
One of the perils of being a book reader watching Game of Thrones has been the fact that so many of the biggest moments have been “surprises” in the context of the narrative. We look to events like the Red Wedding, or the Purple Wedding, or Ned Stark’s fate on the Steps of Baelor as key events in the narrative, but we can’t necessarily share the anticipation of those events with viewers who have no idea they’re coming.
This is why “The Mountain and the Viper” is such a fun episode as a reader writing about the show. For once, the show has built in its own hype machine, setting up the trial by combat and building suspense for it over the past two episodes. The week off for Memorial Day could have negatively affected momentum, but it’s worked nicely to give them another week to set up the stakes of this conflict. As readers, we may have the benefit of knowing how the battle between Gregor Clegane and Oberyn Martell ends, but at least our anticipation for seeing how the battle plays out onscreen is something that we can share with non-readers.
Just as we can both share the slight impatience created by an episode that waits until the bitter end to get to its eponymous showdown.
April 27th, 2014
“You want to fight pretty, or do you want to win?”
Later this evening, a feature will go live at The A.V. Club that focuses on some of the changes between A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. [Edit: You can find said piece here.] When completing my own contributions to this feature, my interest was less in discussing whether or not the changes involved were good or bad, but rather to consider how the logistics of making a television series necessitated certain changes that had a clear effect on how this story is being told.
It’s fitting that it’s emerging on a night when there’s plenty more to add to the list. “Oathkeeper” is written by Bryan Cogman, who of the show’s writers had the most to live up to when it comes to the text of the original novels. Now a co-producer on the series, Cogman has been the person in the writers’ room with the closest relationships to the books and their lore, and has been the most active of the show’s writers in engaging with the series’ rabid fanbase. Although he never outright swore an oath to fans of the books regarding keeping their spirit intact, he’s been the most directly tied to fan communities, drawing both praise and anger in equal measure as the two narratives play out.
I say “two narratives” because I think it’s necessary at this stage in the game. Ultimately, I feel safe in saying that A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones are telling the same story, but they’re following two different narrative paths to get there, as evidenced by an episode that does a lot of labor in the interest of condensing a sprawling narrative into something more manageable for a television series. The result at times feels like pieces on a chessboard being awkwardly pushed together in ways that break the rules, but they’re rules only some of the show’s audience will even know exist, and rules that—unlike oaths—are made to be broken in the interest of a new set of rules that have developed over the course of this new narrative.