Dear Game of Thrones:
Sigh. I think I’m glad this season’s over, for your sake and for mine. Let’s just say that we both know this wasn’t vintage you. Luckily, it looks like you’re heading for a semi-reboot next season, what with Jon Snow’s “death” (yeah right) and the general shake ups of the finale. That may be a smart choice after the season we’ve just witnessed, where your show-runners proved that they may be more than capable of adapting the source material, but when they set off on their own, they’re as hopeless as a wildling at Hardhome. Well, maybe hopeless is a bit harsh. Dammit, Thrones, your finale almost allowed me to forget the rest of the season, forget that you dashed my dreams for the season on the icy snow of Winterfell, forget that, for a while, anyway, I was ready for a real commitment.
You see, while my buddy and co-editor Craig has described you as an abusive spouse (After last night’s episode, Craig finally considered filing for divorce. And a restraining order.), I’ve always seen you as a summer romance: a grisly, passionate 10-week per year affair. For those 10 weeks, everything becomes different: I bookmark the Wiki of Ice and Fire homepage, watch and rewatch each episode until those closest to me question my sanity, and I alienate potential friends or lovers by shifting every conversation back to you. But then, It just goes away. My dip into obsession remains a flirtation after you go on hiatus, and I breathe in the clean, unpolluted air of sanity. It’s borderline unhealthy, what we have, but I wouldn't trade our annual fling for anything.
Which is why I found this season so distressing. You’ve given me emotional and spiritual whiplash over the last 10 weeks. Coming off what may have been your most satisfying effort yet, I was ready to fall in love. Fuck this “summer fling” thing, baby, I’m all yours! And for the first few episodes, you were everything I’d always wanted from you. You were giving me all sorts of good vibrations by pairing interesting characters together. We had Stannis— good, mostly honorable if inflexible Stannis— interacting with Jon Snow! Jon Snow with Mance Rayder! Tyrion and Varys! Jamie and Bronn! Sansa and Littlefinger! Arya and Jaqen-whoever-the-fuck! Sure, I was a little sad to see great pairings like Brienne and Jamie or The Hound and Arya fall by the wayside, but this was better for everyone. There was an egalitarianism to the whole series that made me think this would be the one season of Game of Thrones without a weak subplot. I rode high for five weeks and began prophesying to friends and countrymen that this was the year Thrones turned the corner from “near-great” to “pantheon great.”
For five episodes, I was right. But even in this Camelot stage there were some red flags. Brienne’s storyline stalled outside of Winterfell and went nowhere, Sansa and LIttlefinger were replaced by Sansa and Ramsay (one of the worst pairings you’ve ever given us), and Jamie and Bronn quickly became Jamie and YAWN. Once it became clear that Arya’s arc would more closely resemble the cold open of a Hitman video game than a coherent character arc, I knew we were in trouble. But love is blind sometimes, ya know? Instead of acknowledging the trouble on the horizon, I stuck closer to you than ever, proclaimed your genius with a vehemence only blinded lovers can muster.
But then you turned into your goth cousin over summer break. It’s like you went to college for a semester, read some Camus, and came back realizing the futility of existence. Not only did you realize it was all meaningless, but you decided to never stop talking about it, and it pissed me off, ok? Yes, yes, True Detective can pull it off, and I know you feel that maybe he’s your limelight-stealing little brother or something. But look: what we have each year, though brief, is more real than anything that other show could offer me. You’re solid, unlike some shape-changing anthology series. You’re willing to stick it through and take things seriously, but I think you need to remember who you are. You’re the one that prioritizes Big Conversations and even Bigger Battles, with a dash of mythology tossed in to create a most delicious and addictive treat that keeps me coming back every spring. You know I loved your willingness to pull off the epic kill, loved the balls you showed when you killed Ned, Robb, Catlyn, and most of the other Starks. It was bleak, but it felt necessary, and it jolted our affair forward like a ton of dynamite hiked up to a cargo truck driven by a cranked out teenager. Damn, girl, it was good back then. What happened?
Look, I know there was a big brouhaha over Sansa’s rape scene, but that’s not what created my problems with this season. It seemed somewhat tastefully done, especially when one considers your notorious standards. But still, the fact that you can’t seem to give anyone a meaningful character arc without something awful happening to them just gets old. I mean, we get it, ok? This world often rewards the bad and punishes the good. Can we just move on? I mean, for Christssake, we’ve seen this grinding, pummeling nihilism for 50 hours now. I think there’s a little more we can do here. Why do most female characters need to be raped or face the threat of rape to have any meaningful development? So far, Dany, Sansa, Arya, and Cersei have either been raped or nearly raped over the past five years. For those of you counting at home, that’s every young, female series regular. A plot point like rape unfortunately creates a cycle of diminishing returns. It’s such a common, bland, way to “spice up” a television series that it has lost all effectiveness and resonance. That decay of interest becomes exponential when it happens multiple times a season. It wasn’t disgust I felt during Sansa’s rape: it was exasperation.
The exasperation I felt after episode six only compounded over time, as it became clear that about half of your season’s subplots were absolute clunkers. This is always the problem with you, GoT: each season, you overextend yourself and leave one terrible subplot out there, dangling in a desert wasteland of stalled, vaguely thematically relevant plots. Generally, I’m willing to overlook your one bad subplot because you generally supply enough machinations, violence, and speechifying to satisfy me. But this season, you really shit the subplot bed. Jorah and Tyrion languished in faux danger trying to get to Dany. Yes, Jorah got Greyscale, but your refusal to trace the psychological, physical, or moral effects of that illness rendered Greyscale impotent and moot. Dany languished in Mereen, surrounded by horrible advisors, chained up dragons, and the Sons of the…
Sorry, fell asleep there. Where was I? Oh yeah, bad subplots. Sansa lost all agency after Littlefinger disappeared to King’s Landing, a place where potentially great subplots went to die this season. Introducing the Faith Militant was a smart idea, but you didn’t spend enough time going into the mechanism of religion for it to have any real relevance. How much popular support do they have? What makes the High Sparrow tick? How did Lancel get involved with these nut jobs? I kept waiting for you to answer these questions, but you instead preferred to discuss religion and class revolt in vague, unspecific terms that were greatly unsatisfying.
But worst of all is what you did to Stannis. Stannis may not have been the most sympathetic character you’ve ever created, but he’s always had a code and he’s never been a fool. But this season, he abandoned his code and became a fool over… snow? He sacrificed his child over a snowstorm? This is the guy who rebounded from a staggering defeat at Blackwater, only to reemerge as a contender for the throne through sheer force of will. This is the guy who routed the touted wildling army in about twenty seconds. This is the guy who is so conscious about his reputation for justice that he won’t even let his most trusted advisor go unpunished. And now we’re expected to believe Stannis would give all that up because of a night raid and some snow? This is bad characterization the likes of which I’ve never seen on a prestige drama. It’s so sloppy and silly, no wonder your show runners just blamed it all on George R. R. Martin (who has kept Shireen alive in the books…). Stannis’ treatment embodies a larger trend of lazy writing and bad characterization that started with Sansa’s rape and ended here. Your creative team decided to take shortcuts this season, to take the “shocking” way out instead of the measured one. You wrote these episodes to create water-cooler chatter, not great T.V. And thus, like Stannis, your attempt to conquer my heart was killed by sloppiness.
And yet, in spite of all these terrible developments, you managed to create “Hardhome,” the single greatest episode in your illustrious history. Jon Snow’s battle with the White-Walker led zombie army was genuinely amazing. The way you messed with frame rates and slowly paced the battle for maximum dread was a master class in what you are capable of. Jon Snow, who spent the first four seasons mired in weak character arcs, became your beating heart. He’s the last outpost against an indescribable evil, a force even more terrifying in pitiless silence than in battle. Suddenly, the banality of your nihilism became a thrilling set piece that illustrates the pettiness of everything else that’s happened this season.
Of course, that attitude makes for a much less interesting show at times. It’s hard to make myself care about Cersei being imprisoned because the White Walkers are coming. Dany and her waffling about the fighting pits seem downright funny in comparison to an icy, borderline indestructible force that kills people to facilitate the creation of a zombie army. Try to make talking about leadership strategies seem interesting after seeing something like that. “Hardhome” felt like a great season finale, a chilling cliffhanger to tide us over into next season. But by placing this episode eighth, you undercut all dramatic tension in your last two episodes by asking your other plots to make us forget the White Walkers. And seriously, who could forget those guys? The more people who die, the bigger their army gets. That’s enough to overwhelm the progress of any show.
The season finale you did give us was strong and resonant, and leaves me feeling better about where this relationship is headed. Cersei’s walk of shame was sublime, Dany back at square one promises fast developments on that front (and got her out of Mereen), and Tyrion is back with Varys to try this ruling thing out again. This season largely felt transitional, a beginning of the end that will hopefully begin to solve problems instead of endlessly complicating them. I must stay hopeful. Hopeful that you’ll become the sword and sandals epic with a dash of social commentary again. Hopeful that you’ll start seeing a therapist, buy some Prozac, and wake the fuck up. Hopeful that you can inspire hope instead of an ever deepening despair. But most of all, I’m hopeful you’ll make me want you again.