Valar Morghulis. All men must die.
Those words have been a constant mantra throughout eight seasons of Game of Thrones and more than 4,000 pages of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Firenovels. However, on the basis of the way this particular long game seems to be playing out, they need a new motto. I’d suggest ‘valar issi vestriarzir’ which, for those without a handy High Valyrian dictionary, translates as ‘all men are story’.
That’s the legacy of the final few seasons of Game of Thrones. The programme that could once reasonably call itself the zenith of Peak TV and the most undoubtedly character-driven story on our screens is now a bizarre, megabucks game of chess, in which characters do what the narrative demands of them, rather than what their personality dictates. While Queen Daenerys is able to zoom all over the map, the knights of Westeros must move only in tightly choreographed L shapes and the many pawns of the many rulers can only trudge forward, one step at a time, towards their inevitable, bloody fate.
I may be stretching that particular metaphor.
As Doctor Strange would say, we’re in the endgame now when it comes to Game of Thrones. Penultimate episode ‘The Bells’ aired this week and we are creeping closer to the almost certainly epic finale on Sunday. Daenerys has gone full ‘Mad Queen’ as her Targaryen DNA powered an onslaught of genocidal dragon fire, reducing the streets of King’s Landing to flame-grilled rubble. Jon Snow is clearly aghast at his aunt/lover/idol breaking the Geneva Convention in such brutal fashion, conflicted over continuing to wield his sword for her after the Lannister surrender. It’s set to be Targaryen vs. Targaryen now, with the winner getting custody of the Iron Throne as soon as someone has managed to cool the metal down enough. They might have to sit on a pile of tea towels.
Despite all of this apparent excitement, ‘The Bells’ was an emotional void of an episode. It was a spectacular hour and a half of television, packed with incredible visual effects, deeply impressive acting from arguably the strongest ensemble cast on TV and a handful of enormous narrative incidents. And yet, it didn’t seem to mean anything. Every death, scrap and dialogue exchange felt utterly weightless. They were just pieces being moved on a board.
On the face of it, fans got exactly what they wanted. The tyrannical Cersei died with her brother’s arms wrapped lovingly around her – sort of fulfilling the much-discussed ‘Valonqar’ prophecy – and the equally anticipated ‘Cleganebowl’ took place, with The Hound and The Mountain scuffling to the end in a battle of mutually assured destruction. But none of this felt like the show had earned it, not least because The Mountain’s helmet-free form resembled elderly Darth Vader on his way to a Kiss gig.
The timeline compression of recent years has been dissected to the nth degree – we’ve seen that horse drawing meme a million times on Twitter – and it certainly has a lot to answer for, but it’s not the main issue at play. That issue is death.
To examine the problems an obsession with death has caused for Game of Thrones, we need to go all the way back to more or less the beginning. The penultimate episode of the show’s first season is held up at as a watershed moment. In the climactic scenes of the Alan Taylor-directed ‘Baelor’, Sean Bean does what Sean Bean does best. He dies in spectacular fashion, as Lord Eddard Stark is beheaded on the orders of the bloodthirsty King Joffrey. It’s the show’s first great hero being murdered by its first great villain in a moment that served as a mission statement for Game of Thrones. All men must die, and showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss are more than willing to swing the sword.
From that point on, Game of Thrones fans have been obsessed with death. The coverage of the show, too, has been fixated on which characters will make it out of each episode, as if Benioff and Weiss have replaced their immensely talented writers’ room with a revolving dartboard of character faces like a macabre episode of Bullseye. If you carry out a Google search for Game of Thrones the day after an episode airs, you’re guaranteed to see at least one clickbait listicle of “the characters that died in episode X”. Death is no longer an emotional story development. It’s a plot tool like everything else.
When was the last time a character’s demise on Game of Thrones felt genuinely emotional? Often, in the climactic few seasons of the show, deaths have felt like a way for the table to be cleared in order to facilitate the finale. In many ways, the emotionless listicle is a pretty fitting way to showcase these moments. They serve a function and nothing more. The savage, zombie giant killing of Lyanna Mormont is a rare example of an emotionally potent slaying, though that says more for Bella Ramsey’s spirited performance than anything else.
These aren’t characters any more. They’re pieces of a narrative jigsaw.
At its best, Game of Thrones was a delightfully rich show. Admittedly helped by the rigorous detail of Martin’s hefty fantasy tomes, the first few seasons of the programme serve as a lush tapestry of meaty characters. At times, the lack of incident made them something of a slog, but the characters acted in ways that were informed by their personalities and goals. Now, they act in the way the plot requires them to act.
The cleverest man in Westeros, Tyrion Lannister, is now a sentimental fool who can’t buy a good decision, Daenerys has accelerated from nought to Mad Queen in a matter of moments and Jon Snow is a reluctant hero searching for his place in a world far more complex than him. Actually, maybe Jon hasn’t changed. He’s the show’s one, bland constant.
It’s Tyrion who has undergone the most drastic shift into mere function. He was once the expert strategist who won the Battle of Blackwater, but now he’s a blundering imbecile. In the most recent episode alone, he engineers a scenario to allow for Cersei to not only surrender, but to escape for a happy life in Essos with Jaime, and also positions Varys – one of his closest friends – for certain death just because… well, just because. The show’s reasons for Tyrion’s transformation are, at best, weak and seem predicated on him suddenly having a bond with the rest of his family, despite years of us being told Jaime is the only one he appreciates at all.
Tyrion is emblematic of the show Game of Thrones has become. He’s a point of connection and linkage between almost all of the remaining protagonists and so his character has become completely dehumanised. He’s now merely a malleable cog in the machine of Benioff and Weiss’s grand plan for bringing the curtain down on the biggest television show of the Peak TV era.
Indeed, Tyrion’s siblings have also fallen victim to this. Jaime is one of the most intriguing characters in Game of Thrones and has gone on a remarkable journey. Unfortunately for fans of his arc, Benioff and Weiss needed him to be back in King’s Landing for the finale and so, after a nonsensical fan service fling with Brienne, he was off to cuddle Cersei as the rubble of the Red Keep crushed them to death. Cersei, meanwhile, has spent the entire eighth season glugging red wine while standing by windows. Look carefully and you can see Lena Headey’s mouth moving as she counts the zeroes on her pay cheque. Her only remaining purpose was to die, so the show was content to just have her wait silently for that moment to come.
And now, with the final 90 minutes in sight, there’s only one topic people want to discuss. How will Daenerys die? Who will kill Daenerys? Will it be Arya? Will it be Jon? The ‘breaker of chains’ has now become the final Big Bad of Game of Thrones and that can only mean one thing – death. There’s no room for nuance now. It’s just about who wields the blade.
The most recent episode of Thrones saw many of the show’s most problematic storytelling chickens come home to roost. Every major narrative moment felt meaningless, despite the fact pretty much all of them – yes, including the dragon fire heel turn – made total sense in the context of the story. It’s all too quick, too over-crowded and too clinical. The lesson Game of Thrones has learned from everything that has happened since Sean Bean’s noggin became Joffrey’s office bobblehead is that the fans want blood. And, to the show’s credit, it has certainly delivered blood.
Unfortunately, it has forgotten how to deliver anything else.