HBO’s Game of Thrones

War Crimes on Westeros and Daenerys’ Missing Character Arc

The general consensus is that a lot has gone wrong in this last season of Game of Thrones. To quote a friend of mine, “Jon can’t pet Ghost, but Drogon can set fire to Twitter all the way from Westeros.”

And, look, Game of Thrones has done a lot right. The ratings are chart-breaking. The cultural footprint is ginormous. The money trucks backing up to HBO HQ are heavily loaded. All that is great and wonderful for all those involved. As amazing as it is, though, Game of Thrones isn’t as good as it could be. Both things can be true.

So spoiler warning, folks.

I’ve been writing and talking a lot about the stunningly stupid military tactics on Game of Thrones this year. And, yeah, there’s a lot more of such foolishness at hand in the latest episode, “The Bells.” Some examples:

  • It should go without saying that Named Characters wear no helms in the latest big ol’ battle, though they are nevertheless protected by the invisible Plot Armor of Seasons +8.
  • Grey Worm has usually been a welcome exception to this helmet-free stupidity, but Not Today. Sigh. And yeah, maybe they were trying to use this change to mark how after Missandei’s death he doesn’t give a shit anymore … but that only works if the rest of the characters are wearing helmets like they’re not dumbasses.
  • Cersei, holding an extensively fortified city, sends a significant portion of her defensive force outside the walls for no logical reason whatsoever. (I’m not sure if this is dumber than when Dany and Jon did it at Winterfell.)
  • Cersei has at least twice as many scorpion ballistae as Euron had last week. Those manning these machines have One Friggin’ Job. Last week they did great. This week they got one shot off and then were like “Durrrr, how do these things work?” (Dumberer?)
  • Cersei does nothing to try to break up the opposing army. (At Winterfell, Dany and Jon at least managed to get one shot off from the line of trebuchets before their placement and the dumbass Charge of the Light Dothraki rendered them useless, so I’m leaning toward dumberer for Cersei.)
  • I say King’s Landing is extensively fortified, but then it turns out there’s actually an entirely unguarded entrance into the bloody Red Keep itself that seemingly everyone who’s anyone knows about. How this wasn’t used before to assassinate someone or blow the complex up, High Sparrow-style, is truly beyond me. (Dumbererer?)
  • Westerosi armor is apparently made of cardboard for all the good it does against, I dunno, weapons.
  • Cersei’s leadership plan, as is her usual, is to stare in smirking pride.
  • Jon’s leadership plan, as is his usual, is to stare in forlorn confusion. (Dang, How oh how did I miss all those red flags about my crazy aunt?)
  • Dany’s leadership plan is Aaaaaaargh! Ragey madness!

I could go on, but with a day or two to think on the sins of “The Bells,” it isn’t all the military ineptitude that bothers me most. Yeah, those things frustrate me, given how easily they could’ve been fixed, but I think I’m just numb to the nonsense now. (It’s too late for Game of Thrones, but if any Wheel of Time producers are reading this, holler if you need a military history consultant; I even love the books!)

Nope. What bothers me most right now is Dany’s decision to commit war crimes. Because—make no mistake about it—that’s exactly what she did.

Among the post-episode Game of Thrones-related interviews I gave Monday morning was a lovely chat with a CBC broadcast out of Nova Scotia—ginormous cultural footprint, remember?—in which I was asked about this very point of war crimes. Isn’t there historical precedence for massacres after sieges?

There certainly are. History is horrifyingly full of examples of armies overwhelming a city after weeks or months of siege and the command and control structure completely breaking down as the chaos of looting and lusts takes over. If there’s one positive I found to the military presentation in this last episode, it is that they were unflinching about the utter terror of an over-running urban conflict.

But there’s a key difference between most of our historical precedents and what happened in “The Bells.” One, there’s the timing element. This “siege” lasted all of, well, a couple hours. But more importantly, it wasn’t a lack of control or communications that broke down and caused the terror. This wasn’t rogue elements of the force that had moved beyond operational control. When the bells at last were ringing, there was a clear moment when the carnage could have effectively ended. It didn’t. And it was the head of command who made sure it continued.

Again, sadly, we do have some historical precedents for the decision to kill oppositional armed forces despite their surrender, as Grey Worm does. No quarter was given at the battle of Crécy in 1346, for instance, though this was a clear declaration of both sides before the lines engaged rather than a command decision that occurred post-surrender. (And, anyway, it turns out that at least some prisoners were taken, despite the command.) The battle of Agincourt in 1415 has something a little closer, when King Henry V ordered the massacre of his disarmed French prisoners…but this was due to his worry about not having the men to guard the prisoners while defending against a second attack (that didn’t subsequently materialize). These actions weren’t just the result of mad rageyness.

Worse, Dany didn’t just continue the fight. This queen who built her self-identity around liberating the downtrodden and ending the systems of tyrannical abuse of the many by the few—this “Breaker of Chains”—actively and willfully broadened the fight beyond her armed opponents to encompass the entirety of the civilian population that she—::checks notes::—wants to rule.

Oh, and she makes this 180-degree turn because—::checks notes again::—her friend is killed and a boy doesn’t want to make out with her anymore.

Right.

So I’m going to set my military history hat aside and instead put on my writer hat to talk about what I think has gone wrong here (and, by extension, throughout much of this season).

Setting aside issues of misogyny and other thematic impulses, I’m going to suggest that in the end, this failure to sell a shift in character development is the result of an over-emphasis on plot development…and that the show had little choice in doing so.

The show’s plotting is colliding with the author’s pantsing.

[ETA: After this was submitted, I came across a lovely Twitter thread from Daniel Silvermint that makes much of this same point. Whether that makes us more likely to be right or equally deceived, I don’t know.]

For those who don’t know, pantsing and plotting are shorthand references for two fundamental ways writers can approach their works. A pantser typically drops a fully formed character into a relatively open-ended situation and, developing the story by the seat of their pants, sees what happens. A plotter, on the other hand, typically drops a fully formed plot onto a relatively open-ended character and then sees what happens. For pantsers, the character drives the plot. For plotters, the plot drives the character.

In truth, no writer is exclusively limited to one or the other of these approaches. Like most things in life, we imagine binaries where nature tends to create spectrums. And through the editing process, a lot of pantsers build in plot, and plotters build in character. There’s no one way to write.

Still, most writers generally lean toward one or the other end of the spectrum. I’d call myself a 70% plotter, for instance: for the Shards of Heaven trilogy, I had the historical facts of time and place in Roman history that I needed to work around, and then within that I had a working chapter-by-chapter outline of my fantasy plot. All that is the work of a plotter. But I also had characters who sometimes turned left when my plot said they were going to turn right… and rather than force the character to do something out of character for them, I adjusted my plotting. Frankly, I might write about magic, but the closest thing I’ve ever felt to magic was in those moments of discovery.

George R. R. Martin is, by all accounts, a rather devout pantser. The deep richness of his imagined world in A Song of Ice and Fire is at some level probably indebted to his own experience exploring it himself through the eyes of his nuanced characters.

David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, the showrunners of HBO’s Game of Thrones, are almost assuredly plotters: keeping the plot moving is one the most essential aspects of their job.

Neither method of constructing a narrative is right. They’re just different. When they come together, as they did for much of HBO’s Game of Thrones version of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books, the result can be compelling: the immersive world and multi-dimensional characters from a pantsed composition are streamlined into a more easily digestible greatest hits of the plot. Add in superb casting and some wonderful direction and you can get television history, which is what we’ve had in this show.

It’s easy to say that the things we don’t like about this season—like Dany going full War Crime Warlord—are the result of the show having outpaced George R. R. Martin’s novels, which means Benioff and Weiss being forced to construct plot themselves. This has been the cry on social media, where folks are currently going full-on mad queen on Benioff and Weiss.

Yet even as rage runs across social media like wildfire on the Blackwater, we might pause to consider that the end of things in the show, at least according to previous statements, comes via Martin. Benioff and Weiss are definitely taking their own route to get there, but the final destination is theoretically the same.

To return to Dany, then, the fact that she goes mad—perhaps even her turn to war crimes—could conceivably be from Martin’s outlines, not from those of Benioff and Weiss.

And the thing is, believe it or not, I understand that potential turn. I don’t say that just because I’m a fan of Martin’s work (though in full disclosure I am). I say that because it makes sense given the construction of his world and his character.

Or, perhaps better said, it could make sense. It doesn’t make sense in what we got Sunday night because Benioff and Weiss are no more or less than what they’ve always been: plotters. They’ve dutifully hit the plot point of Dany’s turn, but in no way did they nail down the character arc that should inexorably lead to it.

The problem we’re seeing is akin to Chekhov’s Gun. This is an old adage in writing circles that’s rooted in the writings of playwright Anton Chekhov. My favorite formulation of it is from a letter he wrote in 1889:

“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

At its most basic level, Chekhov’s Gun is about narrative details: the information provided to the audience should have narrative value—whether that’s value in terms of plot (someone is gonna use the gun on the wall) or characterization (someone is the kind of person who hangs a gun on the wall). Another way of looking at the same dictum, however, is to say that if a gun goes off in Act 3, it better be on the stage in Act 1.

The seeds of Dany committing war crimes at King’s Landing need to have been planted in Pentos, and steadily cultivated ever since. Looking back across the run of Dany’s character—yes, even back to the early years—you can scrounge out the bits and pieces that might have led to her having such a change at the end. The seeds are potentially there. But instead of getting an organic growth from those seeds, we got a fast-forward to the end result—a tree of bananas.

The same is true, I think, when it comes to Varys’s arc. Jaime’s. Even Cersei’s. (And don’t get me started on their anticlimactic demises.)

So why aren’t we getting those smooth character arcs? For whatever reasons—by their own choice or by the restrictions of contracts or something else, I don’t know—Benioff and Weiss only had so much screen time in which to wrap this all up. They were, in that sense, set up for failure, especially given the perfect storm of the intense popularity of the series, fans’ intense levels of investment, and the fact that Martin’s pantsing had left them with so very many threads in need of resolution.

In the end, then, I’d argue that it’s all these missing stages—not the end results—that’s likely left most viewers dissatisfied and disappointed.

(Well, aside from those folks who named their children Khaleesi and the like. I suspect they’ve got a few other reasons to be disappointed.)

Finally, I said this on Twitter, but I’ll say it again here: after watching the brick-by-brick CGI destruction of King’s Landing, I think they can take that “no CGI budget for petting Ghost” excuse and shove it up their arses… along with all the helmets folks should have been wearing.

Michael Livingston is a Professor of Medieval Culture at The Citadel who has written extensively both on medieval history and on modern medievalism. His historical fantasy trilogy set in Ancient Rome, The Shards of Heaven, The Gates of Hell, and The Realms of God, is available from Tor Books. His new fantasy novella “Black Crow, White Snow” was released on Friday, May 3rd as an Audible Original.

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