For the last five years readers of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire book series, like me, have operated with a selective silence around Game of Thrones viewers. Season after season we have so badly wanted to reveal what was coming–especially when it seemed that Joffrey had all but won–but at the same time we knew better than to rob TV viewers of the deep emotional thrills regarding Ned’s fate, the Red Wedding, or any of the other plot twists awaiting TV viewers.
Now, with Game of Thrones having caught up with the Ice and Fire books, readers and viewers are united in their knowledge of the series. Unfortunately, the nature of this common ground is bleak and TV viewers are left wondering, just as book readers were after the 2011 publication of A Dance With Dragons, if there’s anything more to this series than repetitive brutality.
Spoilers ahead for all published books and Game of Thrones Season 5.
A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones have always depicted a world where humanity’s worst instincts bubble through a thin veneer of propriety, and author George R. R. Martin’s skill at presenting this through clear, iconic moments is unparalleled. As readers, we have been trained to approach the world in terms of stories, and Martin’s work turns that expectation against us in a darkly constructive manner. Ned’s fate at the end of book/season one is a shock, not just because it defies the common trope of honorable characters persevering to fight another day, but because it points out that we, readers and viewers alike, have ignored our own personal instincts as to what kind of monster Joffrey is in favor of how we thought the story was supposed to unfold. Essentially, we accepted the familiar constructs of fiction as more real or weighty than our own judgement, and that’s a wonderfully complex lesson to impart through something as simple as a beheading.
The concept of expectations based in reality versus expectations drawn from fiction has been explored in a number of detailed plots as the book series and the show progress. Game of Thrones viewers learned that not only should they not expect their personal wishes to be fulfilled (Tyrion won’t be put in charge of everyone, for instance) but that the characters themselves needed to be mindful of the expectations of those around them. As these plot lines continued and the characters grew, we as readers and viewers learned that we could love a Lannister and hate a Stark, that true resolution was rare, and that a character could not take a long view towards readying the Seven Kingdoms for supernatural war without being buried under day-to-day politicking. When taken as a whole, the characters in A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones are as uncertain as we are in real life. Thus, we hang on their every action, hoping against our own expectations that the ASOIAF/Game of Thrones characters can struggle through that uncertainty and save their own world from the very certain mystical evil that is about to shroud them all in darkness.
While we’ve become conditioned to having our fiction-based expectations and comfortable conventions overturned in favor of grimmer, more reality-based outcomes, at this point in the narrative–five books in, five seasons in–the expectations of fiction have begun to reassert themselves. Although true to its characters, Game of Thrones Season 5 is largely without purpose as a work of fiction, a trait that it shares with A Dance With Dragons and A Feast For Crows, the books that this season’s plots were based upon. Almost every character is unsure of their purpose or next step: Stannis’ siege of Winterfell fails spectacularly and his claim to the throne–long an extraneous plot–finally sputters to an end. Brienne revenges Renly but still despairs of finding the Stark girls, despite being a stone’s throw away from one of them. Sansa and Theon try to escape the Boltons and Winterfell, but have no real plan to do so. Cersei is literally given orders as to what she should do and say, reduced to following the High Sparrow’s script. Tyrion is wandering around Essos trying to find a plot line to be a part of. Jaime is wandering through Dorne, failing to save his daughter. And Daenerys is actively rejecting her own plot line, finding ruling Meereen so boring that she just flies away on her dragon.
The books feature an even greater loss of momentum than the TV series, keeping Tyrion apart from Daenerys, introducing yet another new contender for the Iron Throne, and promising huge battles in Meereen and Winterfell without actually delivering them. (The book series comes to a complete stall in one of Davos’ chapters, where the contents of a stew are described at length over two terrifying pages.) Jon Snow still dies in the same manner, and while it’s a thematically strong death–he dies doing the right thing, just like Ned, assuming a loyalty amongst his peers that has never actually been demonstrated–it feels transparent and cynical in comparison to the lack of momentum in the series. As if killing a main character is now the only way to keep Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire interesting.
This is an utterly cynical way to think about Jon’s death, but can readers and viewers be blamed for presuming such cynicism after experiencing it season after season, book after book? That A Dance With Dragons and Game of Thrones Season 5 also share a peculiar focus on brutality certainly adds to this sense of cynicism. Altering Sansa’s plotline in Game of Thrones to make her the victim of rape was essentially the last straw for The Mary Sue, and the conclusion of this season of the show saw the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Vox, and other outlets noting the unrelentingly grim nature of the show, as well. A Dance With Dragons features depictions of abuse, executions, and rape with such frequency that, when I first read it, I began noting how many pages it had been since the last mention or instance of sexual violence. It was rare for that number to reach double digits. And while that might not be entirely new for the series, it felt gratuitous when compared to the relatively motionless plot. A Song of Ice and Fire, and by extension Game of Thrones, has always been about the conflict between the realistic actions of a society versus the demands of an epic fantasy storyline, but these days it feels as if there’s no story being told at all, leaving us with the realistic actions of Westeros and Essos’ disturbingly violent society.
So far, this is where readers of A Song of Ice and Fire have been left: bereft of purpose (and Jon Snow) and stalled out in a fantasy kingdom where torture and sexual violence are ubiquitous. Readers have been here since 2011 and now, with the conclusion of A Game of Thrones season 5, TV viewers have finally joined us on these grim shores. But will a sense of purpose, of momentum, of hope, return to the book and television series with The Winds of Winter, or Game of Thrones season 6? And will we care?
I wonder if the ultimate battle in this series is already before us. Not a struggle between Others and dragons, fire and ice, Starks and Lannisters, but between our gut reactions to this fictional world and the desire we have for it to conform to our story expectations. The part of us that celebrates epics and stories wants these characters and this world to rally and move past the abuse that defines it. But the instinctively emotional part of us is done caring. If the book and TV series is going to keep grinding up the people and things we care about and are invested in, then we don’t care if Westeros lives or dies. Hell, as far as we know this IS a series about how an entire world dies. Fuck it. Let winter come.
This is what it’s like to feel done with A Game of Thrones. After a while it’s a lot like not being done with A Game of Thrones.
Chris Lough would still suggest picking up A World of Ice and Fire, however. That book is a lot of fun.