Having written an in-depth look at all the main character story lines this season it’s time to give my verdict on the season as a whole. It’s been a few weeks since the final episode and there’s been a lot of discussion online. Is Game of Thrones past its peak? Are we all getting fatigued now? Can D&D really rival GRRM? I’ll try to ponder these questions in this article and make sense of the current backlash against the show.
My general disposition
I’m a fan like many others. I got into the books after watching (actually during) the first season. The show immediately grabs attention and doesn’t let go, and I knew that these books had to be something special. Before season 2 even aired, I’d finished all the books that were released. So I’m sort of a book nerd, but not really. I’m still very much attached to the show, and I’ve got huge respect for the show runners and the whole team. I’m not butt hurt when the show does something in a different way than the books, because the formats just demand different approaches of presenting the story. Considering all that, season 5 was one of the weaker seasons overall, though I’m not as angry about it as so many others on the internet seem to be.
A loss of momentum
In season 3 and 4, Game of Thrones felt like a force of nature. I mean, the Red Wedding? Brilliant story lines like Arya and the Hound, Tyrion’s trial and Oberyn’s death, and Tywin getting it in the loo? It’s just brilliant, exciting stuff to see on the screen. But this kind of momentum is not sustainable. Game of Thrones is not about one-upping the stakes season after season. This season 5 was in many ways about slowing things down, picking up the pieces and taking a close look at how people deal with some of the big game changing events of the last few seasons. It’s about asking “What now?”.
The Night’s Watch is dealing with scores of Wildlings in their own castle and we look at Jon Snow and ask him “What now?”. His plan of preparing for the inevitable undead invasion was depicted really well. It was one of the best parts of this season, but it consists mainly of a lot of dialog and politicking. All that lead up to the outburst of action and violence at Hardhome late in the season and then in Jon’s death.
Sansa’s struggle to become a person of any influence whatsoever, of shedding her victim persona was difficult to watch. She finally comes home and again we ask “What now?”. Her story line was much like Theon/Reek’s in a previous season and this made for dark, uncomfortable viewing. We see her being abused and not taking initiative at all, so that whole thing felt like it’s going nowhere fast. Miranda’s death and the (stupid) jump off the battlements was only a small pay-off for all the tediousness.
Tywin’s dead and the Lannisters are weaker than ever. With Cersei at the helm we ask “What now”? Her’s was one of the most interesting stories this season. It all starts with her idiotic (but in her mind, brilliant) ploy to weaken the Tyrells using religious fanatics. It was a pleasure watching her finally getting what she always wanted and making a complete mess of it. By the end when she takes that walk of shame, I even felt sorry for her. We’re used to watching King’s Landing from a politics point of view, so the added excitement of the chaos factor of the Faith Militant made for a comparatively action-packed story there.
Dorne was shit, and a stain on Game of Thrones forever.
Arya’s story promised much excitement. She goes to Braavos to become an apprentice in a bad-ass assassin’s guild. Finally she’d become the vengeful killer she was shaping up to become since the beginning. So she arrives, and we ask “What now?”. She show tells us to hold our horses. First Arya must clean corpses and run around the city yelling “Oysters, clams and cockles!” for a few episodes. Only in the last episode does she really take action and satisfyingly puts an end to the evil Meryn Trant. Compare that to season 4’s first episode where she sticks Polliver with the pointy end.
Dany’s story was, again, slow. She’s conquered Meereen and freed the slaves. What now? She decides to rule, and promptly gets into situations she’s never been in. She’s learning on the job, and we’re watching her make frustrating mistakes. Since we don’t really care about such a faraway place, it feels unimportant, especially for Daenerys since her destiny has been in Westeros all along.
The loss of momentum this season is in my opinion understandable, but it makes for more tedious viewing, especially for those millions of viewers who have gotten into the show because of the sex and violence and stayed for more sex and violence. I find it ironic that Game of Thrones was super popular in the beginning but criticized for its use of “sexposition” and the graphic deaths, but now that the show slows down to study its characters more closely, with less boobs and swords than ever, it’s apparently past its peak.
There are at least another 2 season to go, and in order for these to be as exciting and thrilling as possible, we needed this season as a breather, as some downtime. Things have changed in Westeros, and the pieces are getting into position for the endgame. Of course, we don’t know what GRRM has in store, but that seems to be the most likely course of action.
Another, more mundane reason why the show lost momentum is that the show simply has caught up to the books. Season 6 will have to have events and developments that are only found in the as yet unreleased sixth book “Winds of winter”. Hopefully the book can be released before season 6 premiers, and it seems like that is a possibility. There was not that much material in “Feast for Crows” and “Dance with Dragons” that lends itself fit for the show. People missed the Greyjoy bits and I’d have liked that too. The show runners decided though that the average viewer wouldn’t be able to keep up with all the different characters. There’s a lot of streamlining in the show, for better or worse. Tyrion’s journey to Meereen for example has a lot more to it in the books for example, but faithfully implementing that in the show wasn’t going to make it much better, if at all.
A gap between GRRM and the show’s writers
Over the last decade, TV has evolved tremendously. In the past, TV was about episodic bits of story being drip fed to the audience. Low attention spans and a need for a show to be accessible for people who start watching in the middle meant that any kind of involved linear narrative wasn’t feasible. But today we have Netflix, video on demand and that means that the old limitations disappeared. Also, people want these involved, long form stories now.
Game of Thrones came at the perfect time. It was fresh, because while it was set in a seemingly cliche fantasy world, it treated its characters in a realistic way. It broke with unspoken rules and it was daring in its depiction of sex and violence. TV shows weren’t supposed to do that, but Game of Thrones didn’t care.
All that was, in my opinion, because the show was an adaptation. They could start off with a young woman being raped on her wedding and a boy being shoved from a window after witnessing incest sex and do that confidently. This show was going places and it could be sure of that. Why? Because it was all laid out in the books. The story was written with a long term goal and all the short term bits ready for adaptation. GRRM can be a ponderous writer though, so the show often had to stream line things and with the benefit of hindsight (compare to GRRM when he wrote his books) were able to identify the things that could be trimmed down for better pacing. Think of Jaime killing his relative when imprisoned by the Starks. In the book that relative was a third wheel for a while on the way back to King’s Landing. He didn’t contribute much, so Jaime killing him in the show had a bigger impact.
The show could also add new scenes that took advantage of the chemistry between the actors. Robert and Cersei pondering a Dothraki invasion for example never happened in the books. Or Arya being Tywin’s cup bearer in Harrenhal lead to some really great dialog between the two.
But at some point, the show’s writers came up with entirely new plot developments and branched off more and more. There were largely inconsequential mini-plots like Bran’s capture at Craster’s Keep for example. But some changes were significant. Take the fact that Sansa in the books never went back to Winterfell. She’s actually still at the Eyrie learning the trade of scheming from Littlefinger. The girl being married off to Ramsay Bolton was Jeyne Pool, Sansa’s friend. I can understand the reasons behind such changes. It’s about keeping the scope of the show under control (and within budget) and if it works, it arguably improves on the books in little ways. But when it goes wrong (and it really did this season) it can become hugely concerning.
Taking Sansa’s story as an example, this change in her story means a change in her entire character arc. The Sansa in the show will be vastly different than the one in the book. Show-Sansa is damaged and traumatized from the rape and abuse, not to mention that she’s lost in the woods around Winterfell with Theon (assuming both of them survive the fall) and on the run. Book-Sansa on the other hand is enjoying a relatively fun life in the safety of the Eyrie, learning the art of seduction and basically becoming the player I was hoping she would. How will that impact on the show? Is the show even interested in keeping faithful to the books at this point? The changes in her story also meant a frustrating lack of conviction in the writing. Her dilly-dallying (not taking action to defend herself all season) felt like it was a direct consequence of some dilly-dallying among the writers. They have branched out into unknown territory, paths that GRRM hasn’t laid out for them, so there doesn’t seem to be any end point they’re moving towards. Sansa’s story feels like it’s been bastardized into Jeyne Poole’s, and the conviction of writing feels lost.
Now looking at what happened with Dorne this season, the gap between the show’s writers and GRRM becomes even more apparent. I won’t say that Dorne and the Martells in the books is great literature. I actually didn’t much care for it in the books, but it was a relatively important part of the overall plot. You had the issue of Myrcella being a hostage/ward and the Sand Snakes causing a stir. There was also more to Doran Martell’s plans that was completely cut for the show (and I don’t think we’ll get to it in future seasons). In the show though, Dorne was treated like shit. It became apparent when in the opening animation, you don’t see “Sunspear” as the label for the capital city in Dorne, but simply “Dorne”. They needed to include Dorne and also ditch Jaime somewhere (he goes to the Riverlands to treat with the Tullys in the book), but to cut costs they had him go to Dorne in a contrived subplot of retrieving his daughter. They had a neat little adventure, and pairing him with Bronn promised at least some entertaining scenes at the beginning. There even was some emotional core, what with Jaime doing something for his child for once. But the first real disappointment came with the introduction of the Sand Snakes. In the books, they aren’t really shown at all, and you only learn about them from hearsay. This coupled with their being the bastard daughters of the supreme badass Oberyn meant that people had this hyper badass image of them in their minds without ever really seeing them in action.
So in the show there they are, and they come off more like three young bitchy girls trying to stir some shit. They appear more like silly “Girlpower!” idiots and less like the actually dangerous, vicious women who have nothing to lose. The setup of the race between the two groups to capture Myrcella, the ensuing terribly unconvincing battle there, and the lame conclusion to it all (Myrcella dying right after having a real moment of closeness with her father) just showed how much the show’s writers can get it wrong. The tone of the dialog, the complexity of the developments and the acting were all WELL below par. It feels thrown together and gratingly out of tune with the rest of the show. We see how little creativity the writers can have when you look at the now apparent tactic of pairing two well-liked characters for some easy chemistry.
We are all getting a bit tired, but that’s normal
A Song of Ice and Fire, and thus Game of Thrones the show, is an epic. It’s a series of books that spans (presumably) seven books where each book is at around ~800 pages or more. A Storm of Swords, the third book, had to be published in two separate volumes in some countries! This isn’t something that can easily be adopted in cinematic form. Imagine turning the books into one or more feature length films, it wouldn’t be enough. The only way was to make it a TV show, but even TV shows have an ideal length. Usually for such continuous narratives of comparable density, at around 5 seasons is where fatigue sets in. Few shows have the quality of writing that allows them to hold interest this far. Game of Thrones has done exceptionally well so far with some occasional stumbles, but the novelty has worn off. What was fresh and gripping in season 1, things like Ned Stark’s death or the character of Tyrion, the awesomeness of the world (I really loved the Eyrie in season 1) have become known quantities. Game of Thrones has become mainstream and that’s just what it’s going to be from now on. Fatigue is to be expected and there’s no use whining about it. Some want the story resolved in the next season before the show becomes less and less popular, but that’s just not how it’s going to be. GRRM has already figured where the story goes, and the show will get there too. At least two more seasons will be in store for us.
Game of Thrones’ season 5 has been a mixed bag. It surely could’ve done a lot of things better. Dorne and Sansa especially. The show is now really struggling keeping the scope of the story in check, as well as with the consequences of branching out from the original story. A real gap has become evident between the writing of the show and that of GRRM, and that’s my main concern going forward. The more and the further the show branches out, the more the quality of the show seems to suffer. I find that the show is at its best when it faithfully adapts the original story while making streamlining edits that cut some of the fat from the material in the books.
There were memorable, well made scenes of course. Highlights were Tyrion and Daenerys’ meeting, Arya murdering Meryn Trant and of course Cersei’s downfall. The issue though is that the bad has for the first time threatened to outweigh the good.
The overall pace of the show has slowed down significantly and the missteps this season were bigger than ever, which doesn’t bode well for next season. Compared to most other TV shows though, Game of Thrones remains among the best in its writing, acting and production values. I’m sticking with it of course, and am looking forward to season 6. The hope for me is that with an almost simultaneous release of “Winds of Winter”, the popularity and quality of the show can gain a second wind. We’ll see in time.
Season 5 gets a B-