Game of Thrones: Built to be Popular Not to be Great

I love television...a lot! I grew up with an appreciation for content creation [Ed’s note: He means TV and movies] and watched TV and film [Ed’s note: told you] through a lens most people don’t from a very young age. I admit its strange for a child to watch Darkwing Duck and ask what are the motivations of a given character, but I am who I am. Watching TV as much as I do and how I do doesn’t make me better than any other TV viewer, but I have found it invites healthy debate from friends and family as to what I think of a given show. TV and film are art created for the sole purpose of being judged. I get my judgment. You get yours. And then we get to fight it out.

A long time ago I was asked my opinion by a close friend on Game of Thrones (GoT) in a dinner party setting. I said, “I didn’t really like it.” I wasn’t ready for the sheer disgust that my friends would show as a result of my not liking their favorite show, especially since I had been asked for my opinion. I would have been better off salting their food and laughing about it. Every time I see them they remind me that I don’t like it. They sometimes introduce me as the guy who doesn’t like GoT to their friends and co-workers. Every time this happens the shock from the new person who finds this out is the same. “Really? How? Why?” My friends and their friends struggle with this has gone on for years. Seriously, it’s the biggest argument I have had with friends since Biggie and Tupac. For those of you too young to understand this reference Biggie and Tupac were rappers who died to gun violence back when that was a thing [Ed’s note: He’s being sarcastic here. RIP Nipsey Hussle]. Now rappers just make a ton of money through SoundCloud. In the 90s and 00s. Rappers literally died for their art (luckily, America has solved its gun violence problem since then). It’s important to juxtapose actual gun violence against what I am going to say because Game of Thrones and all arguments about it are make-believe. There’s no need for vitriol or anger, it’s an opinion of one fan of the golden age of television has. Win, lose or draw, we can all bring a healthy debate.

As discussed 213 times already, we are in a golden age of television. If you just Google that phrase you will get some incredible content. Seriously, incredible. Television used to not be this good, the TV airwaves used to be dominated by family sitcoms, family dramas, and Law & Order. Honestly, if you wanted to get great content you had to buy a movie ticket. TV was relegated to watching Friends, Family Matters, and Law & Order [Ed’s note: American Gladiators?]. Relative to TV shows at large, GoT is a good show. After all, shows that are “bad” aren’t this popular. But it isn’t great. For context, the bar for great [Ed’s note: in his humble opinion of course] is “should it be considered in the sphere of the shows that pushed the boundaries of television into a new stratosphere?” To this, my answer is no. For me there are far too many issues for GoT to be considered a great show. Honestly, there are far too many issues for it to be a good show, but it is no longer enough for me to just say these things in a void (wait did I just call my friends vacuous?), I will state my arguments and move on [Ed’s note: will he really?].

Argument 1: It’s Low Fantasy and Therefore Easy

GoT is low fantasy, for those of you who aren’t familiar with low vs high fantasy. High fantasy is a world that is filled with magic and other world devices (vampires, werewolves, talking trees, etc.) that usually pits obvious good “heroes” against obvious bad “villains” (think 1980s wrestling). Low fantasy is a fictional world that closely resembles our own (think a renaissance fair, but with dragons). Not to be repetitive, but a world full of orcs, mages, fairies, dwarves, and magic (lots of magic) is high fantasy. A world with low fantasy operates on rules closer to our world. GoT’s low fantasy world doesn’t make the show bad or good, it makes the show a place for the rules of its own fantasy to operate. The issue I have with GoT isn’t that it’s low fantasy, it’s that in general low fantasy shows have a lower degree of difficulty than high fantasy shows due to the lesser amount of world-building, explanation, and immersion that needs to occur in order for your audience to suspend disbelief. GoT really has no excuse for being a show that suffers from as much lazy writing as it does. Trigger alert: Yes, GoT has lazy writing. It is important to determine why an audience deserves your attention to care and detail as a writer. It is doubly important to do that when the source material is as well loved and respected as GoT’s is. The rules of high fantasy shows are further from reality, so they require more explanation, the more explanation they require the more rules they require for viewers to understand the world they are immersed in.

Argument 2: It’s Low Art and Therefore Lazy

The fact that GoT is low fantasy in no way gives it the right to be low art. It is accessible, but doesn’t really push aesthetics. Ignoring (how could you?) the rapes and excessive violence, the show doesn’t seem to succeed fully at what it is trying to do. Unless that is to tell a story of spectacle (then . . . they nailed it?). However, as a drama I think it has been falling short for at least the last few seasons. One must assume far too much about the desires and wants of each character to far too great a degree in order to suspend disbelief (there’s that concept again) of what the show is trying to tell us. If I were to ask most fans of GoT what characters goals are, they could answer that question with ease: Power! However, most fans cannot answer what most characters’ motivations are because GoT doesn’t do a great job of putting us in each character’s shoes. This could be because there are so many characters (a choice the show-runners made) or the fact that no character is “safe” (this idea is false also, but I will go into detail about why later!). Either direction there is no excuse for this oversight. Strong character development hinges on the audience caring about the character in an intimate way, not just hoping they survive. The perspective for each (or many) GoT character just isn’t there. I would argue that it’s due to an inability for the writers to figure out how to connect the audience to each person’s back story while showing dragons and boobs.

GoT breaks its own rules when it deems it is necessary to up the pacing of its already poorly paced show. For example, in season 7, episode 5 (SPOILERS!!!!!) fast travel mode seems to be engaged as Jon Snow and his hunting party manage to get beyond the wall, grab a wight and come back to the other side of the kingdom. The idea that this is possible isn’t strange, it’s strange only because this was never possible before. In the first seasons of the show, it showed how difficult, treacherous and hard travel was. In this episode a character just popped across the map like he was going down to the corner store (get me a beef patty!). GoT doesn’t abide by its own rules of engagement. Not in a cheeky creative way, but in a “we need this to work for us so let’s just break the rules of our own world. . .way.” That’s literally the definition of lazy writing.

If you get any bigger you won’t fit in our budget

If you get any bigger you won’t fit in our budget

Argument 3: It’s not well-paced

Speaking of pacing, re-watch season 1. End of discussion. [Eds note: I made him have more of a discussion.] Ugh. . . fine. GoT knew they had a pacing problem, its why articles like this and this and this exist. So, in recent seasons they have attempted to get rid of this problem and another one —how to get all these people in a room or on a battlefield together — by ignoring some of the production quality that they had given their fans in earlier seasons. This coupled with the cost of post-production (where are the dire wolves? In budget hell) and you have a faster paced story, but sadly not a better outcome. There is no character study. There is no understanding by the audience of what a big moment is because the show must cram as many boobs (a lot) and dragons (good amount but would like to see more) in it as possible. [Ed’s note: I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing more boobs!]

“Do you think you will make it to post?”

“Do you think you will make it to post?”

Argument 4: It’s a political drama disguised as a fantasy drama

There is no easy way to say this, but I will anyway. [Ed’s note: because he’s a dick!] GoT and House of Cards are empirically the same show. Ignoring the fact that both titles have three words in it [Ed’s note: He’s being sarcastic]. They are both political dramas that hinge on intrigue, cloak and dagger policy making and back-alley dealing to undermine other people to achieve precious power. But that is where the similarities end. One develops its characters by showcasing each of the characters goals and motivations and one does not (or has killed all the people that did have clear motives). One showcases the passage of time in unique ways by utilizing establishing shots and other thematic devices such as an event or gathering and one does not. One uses plot lines and visual devices to showcase espionage, intrigue, and backstabbing and the other has incest, boobs, and dragons. GoT forces its audience to connect too many dots, not in a smart way but in an inane and tenuous way.

Argument 5: It doesn’t use its time period other than to portray violence

Ignoring the fact that everyone has a European accent and plays dress up, GoT doesn’t use its time period. I’m shocked that more fans don’t take issue with this. While understanding that the world is made up, most made up worlds use elements of our reality to help make the world up. This achieves two things. It makes the world more believable and gives the creator a shorter distance to set a baseline for their manufactured reality. I get that the world was more dangerous the further back in time you go, but this isn’t our world. GoTs world can be as dangerous as it wants to be at whatever time it likes. If the creators establish the characters are in dangerous times due to dangerous circumstances the audience will believe you. Why not use some events from the real world (famine, childbirth, weather, heresy) to showcase that this takes place in a different world. The only times I can think of GoT using its time period was when (SPOILERS!) The Mountain fought Ser Loras in season 1 (stretch). The only other time is when Oberyn fought The Mountain in a duel (even bigger stretch). [Ed’s note: I would have used the time when Robert Baratheon was injured hunting as an example] The show doesn’t really use the time period to push thematic elements. To be fair, the Sept of Baelor arc (Spanish Inquisition), character travels or when Robert Baratheon was killed hunting [Ed’s note: there it is!] are times when GoT did use elements of reality to push its narrative and it is some of its best stuff [Ed’s note: shout out to the Grey Plague]. I didn’t read the books. However, books are almost always better than the TV or movie versions of the source material because of the infinite amount of real estate in text versus the finite amount of film/budget. I don’t think this would be the case in the books. The books would world build to a greater degree if not just to immerse the reader in the rules of its own universe. However, the books aren’t what I take issue with. My arguments are only about the show. In fact, I think this helps the show with its popularity. The show is so modern (spice traders, mega-banks and huge standing armies) it allows people today to relate to it more. I don’t mind this, after all, the world is made up. It seems strange that a world that has banks that play a role in global politics and people argue over the merits of slavery doesn’t have events that draw you deeper into the world they worked so hard to build.

I exist solely as a plot device

I exist solely as a plot device

 Argument 6: (Seriously, how many arguments are there?) It doesn’t really develop its characters

I have alluded to this point before. Quick, describe your favorite character from GoT. Do this without using appearance, skills, plot relevance or relationships? You can only describe the characters in terms of their personality. See if your other GoT friends can guess the character based on your description. This is a test to see how multi-dimensional they are.

For example, here’s one: strong-willed, determined, scheming, smart, power hungry. Got (see what I did there) it? Cool, who am I thinking of?

Wait a minute, that’s every character on the show! If all the characters on the show are the same, are they any good? Sure there are articles to argue whether they are one-dimensional or not; and not having highly dimensional characters doesn’t mean you can’t have strong moments in a show. It’s just that a great show should be able to give us all these things, especially if it is as a popular force in the golden era of television.

I think this problem points to a greater issue in the infrastructure of GoT. The idea that no character is “safe” isn’t accurate or true. “It's a good thing about George R.R. Martin: He's prepared to kill off the main guys. You don't get the feeling that the good guy is going to last forever, like James Bond.” This is a direct quote from Ned Stark himself, Sean Bean. While anyone who has seen how season 1 ended in GoT would agree with this point, a person who has continued in the series can’t agree with this idea anymore. GoT, while introducing a solution to the problem “how do we keep the danger real?”, (a solution to a problem not that many people have asked) they have introduced another larger problem, “how do we kill off characters people care about and keep them caring about the new characters we introduce to keep the plot going?” (The Anti-Bond Theorem). This is a nuanced concept, but I will do my best to explain. In a show like GoT, the plot is character driven. The plotting (see what I did there), intrigue, backstabbing, and infighting are all the elements of what drives the story. GoT at its core is a character study that asks, “what would you (the audience) do if you had to plot your way to the top?”. In this game, there are actual consequences to the decisions you make (Ed’s note: like Bandersnatch!) This works fine if we care about the characters and their deaths (Ned Stark). Although a character who dies is missed, their plot can live on in their children or relatives (Catelyn and her children). However, this depends on two things. How well developed the people who live on in their cause is and whether the audience cares about the new characters at the center of the story line. In order to get the audience to care, the character that dies must be developed (not necessarily liked) and understood. This works if you are The Starks, it doesn’t if you are The Sand Snakes. A lot of GoT characters don’t pass the “do I give a shit?” test. Sadly, this is a flaw in the Anti-Bond Theorem. If a writer works to establish a character, the audience likes that character but that character is killed, there is a great risk that the audience no longer has a character to align themselves with and no longer cares about the show. It’s not a coincidence that all the characters who have made it to the end were there from the beginning, you can’t tell a story any other way. The writers couldn’t kill Jon Snow, Tyrion, and Daenerys. In doing so you eliminate some of the more popular characters in the show. People can point back to Ned Stark being a main character and dying in season one and Catelyn being a main character in season 2 and dying, but once the wheels of the story train got going, there wasn’t a way to push the narrative while still killing characters off. The cost of “investing” into character screen time only to kill them and re-establish new ones is too great. Where the “real estate” in a book is unlimited, you are dealing with a finite amount of time on a TV screen.

The female characters in GoT have become the most compelling because their motivations are clear … sort of.

The female characters in GoT have become the most compelling because their motivations are clear … sort of.

Argument 7: It doesn’t show the information

(SPOILERS!!) Seriously, why was Joffrey’s killer only discussed? Why wasn’t the fact Joffrey was killed by Olenna shown in the form of a letter or back alley communication between plotting characters? It could have been used against her as a leveraging tool by another character. Anything could have been better than Olenna just telling someone in the form of bland exposition. That was a big reveal that was just given to us by the show because “she would never let anything happen” to her granddaughter. What a waste! While exposition can be a great tool. GoTs exposition is in far too great of a supply. I wonder if this is due to production cost or if this is how the writers choose to execute action. If it is the previous, I understand (but not really). If it is the latter, they need to go back to the drawing board [Ed’s note: Err, writing table?].

Argument 8: Just because a show is accessible doesn’t make it good

Do I need to go into much more explanation here? Game of Thrones is massively popular [Ed’s note: agreed]. I’d even argue that at a surface level it is entertaining (dragons and boobs will do that). But is that enough to make a show great? I don’t think so. The point of making great television is for it to hold up [Ed’s note: Studio execs would disagree]. While I understand studios need to get audiences to make money, great writing, great characters and great execution cause audiences to occur. I am not comfortable with popularity determining a shows place in history. Think of your favorite TV show of all-time (if you are thinking of GoT, I will drop kick you!) What were the elements you liked about it (dragons and boobs)? It probably had something to do with identifying with a character, or being wrapped up in the excellent story (seriously, why doesn’t Daenerys just firebomb everyone in Westeros and then go have lunch? Oh, she will hurt people? She didn’t care about that when she firebombed the fleet of the masters ships). Game of Thrones has moved away from strong story telling elements and has focused on spectacle. Did the show you were thinking about focus on that? Or did it focus on achieving a feeling from you? A connection between you and the cast? Game of Thrones has none of this for me, but I guess that’s just how it is for the Battle of the Iron throne. You live it or you whine.