Sound and fury: What was Game of Thrones ultimately about?


Game of Thrones turned out to be much, much less than the sum of its parts - a rushed, unwitting homage to Seinfeldesque nihilism.

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing. – William Shakespeare, Macbeth

GAME OF THRONES SPOILERS AHEAD!

THE ending of a story does not always define the story, but a story cannot be defined until it is ended.

The ending of a Game of Thrones brought us face to face with questions of narrative intent, and the trend of literary nihilism.

In other, less pretentious, words: what was this story really about?

The short answer – for the TV version anyway – looks increasingly to be: “nothing”. The show was about nothing. Game of Thrones was basically Seinfeld.

By the end, it turns out it ultimately wasn’t really about climate change, or nuclear weapons (maybe a little bit), or internal struggles and redemption arcs, or subverting genres in interesting ways, or serious, believable political intrigue.

It had a lot of spectacle. It was long on sound (kudos to Ramin Djawadi), and it ended with plenty of fury. But by the end of it all, it turns out that the story that David Beinoff and DB Weiss decided to tell really was about ... nothing.

Others have explained this at great length, so I’ll only do the briefest recap. The convenient defeat of the White Walkers made their multi-season arc meaningless; Dany’s 11th hour turn made her six-season campaign as a compassionate liberator as meaningless as her timid death; Jon’s journey ended up being meaningless beyond stabbing the Queen and brooding about it; and the farce of a political “solution” made all the intrigue prior to it meaningless.

I don’t believe in rage or mindless hate, but professionally, the quality of Beinoff and Weiss’ work cannot but betray a lazy desire to wash their hands of a child they clearly no longer loved, and to do so as quickly as they could.

One might forgive fans for feeling like the lover they helped support through hard times left them for a younger, more attractive alternative as soon as the money and fame came pouring in – especially given the fact that HBO apparently offered them plenty of opportunity to extend the show considerably, to give it the time it needed to end meaningfully.

There are as many answers to the question “Why tell a story?” as there are storytellers. None are more “legitimate” than another. Different narrative intents leave different marks on those who experience the story, and on the cultural fabric of our world.

Where does Game of Thrones lie on this spectrum?

We’ll start our comparisons at an obvious enough point: JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

George RR Martin is absolutely right to say that Tolkien’s black-and-white world where beautiful noble elves valiantly defeated ugly orcs lacked a certain moral realism.

Even so, Tolkien crafted a brilliant allegory on the nature of power, and how it controls us, not vice versa. The character of Smeagol/ Gollum was of course an intense and brilliant portrayal of internal struggle.

Game of Thrones was a show that involved a lot of politics. There is a quote that has stayed with me over the years: “The West Wing was a dream of what government could be. House of Cards is a nightmare of what we fear it’s become.” (http://t.co/SlPveJU0Xy)

While having completely different souls at their core, both shows endeavoured to place their nuanced takes on politics within the realm of plausibility, replete with shades of grey.

By the end of Game of Thrones, Dany has gone full Bond villain – complete with the cartoonish mandatory all-black outfit and megalomaniacal dreams of world “liberation” – while Tyrion is resolving in five or 10 minutes the biggest political problems in Westeros by singing some cringeworthy imp version of Kumbaya.

Not every story needs to have a grand point. Lost was entertaining – albeit not entirely consistently – by simple virtue of its never-ending mysteries, and layer upon layer of WTF moments.

I’m not sure Breaking Bad had much of a point (beyond making a compelling argument for a better healthcare system perhaps), but the artistry of its storytelling and clear narrative direction gives it its well-deserved reputation.

Other stories seem to have a clearer narrative intent, and that can work quite well too.

The Wire aspired to give an accurate, meaningful portrayal of just how layered and complex the roots of social problems in Baltimore were, in a way that must have resonated with almost all of urban America. By virtue of its humanist intent and sharp execution, it remains one of my favourite shows.

Tolkien’s work calls to mind the observation by GK Chesterton, paraphrased by Neil Gaiman: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten”.

Once in a while, a young boy grows up watching Aragorn, and consciously or subconsciously, aspires to live his life as nobly as Aragorn did.

A decade later, The Wire is still used in classrooms as a starting point to explore issues of endemic socioeconomic problems, institutional rot and corruption; and more than half a century later, Tolkien’s characters still stand as beacons some of us want to emulate.

In some of the best stories, characters become enduring points of cultural reference – role models, tales of caution, or shorthand for describing personas and archetypes (my wife for instance, keeps asking me whether she is like The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon).

What has Game of Thrones then, left us with?

Undoubtedly, some stunning cinematography – technical achievements that stand out regardless of anything else – and some very fine acting and dialogue. Memorable examples of the latter include Jon with Jeor Mormont and Maester Aemon, Tywin and Arya, and Jamie and Brienne.

It also gave us no end of badass spectacle – the Hound and his chickens, the Red Wedding, Dany buying the Unsullied, Viserion burning down The Wall, and the Dothraki charge into the night.

The way the story rushed and stumbled awkwardly to its end however, left all of the above and more without a crucial anchor – a culmination that gave every other step of the journey meaning, and tied it together as a story.

Everything about the show before the last few seasons pointed to, well, the fact that the story had a point. It is likely that George RR Martin has one, but for Beinoff and Weiss, it feels like the point was to get past this (Game of Thrones) point as quickly as humanly possible.

This leaves us with a piece of work with flashes of brilliance everywhere, but where the final product is so, so much less than the sum of its parts.

“Subverting expectations” was a phrase that was thrown around a lot. Different is very often good, but different is not automatically the same as good.

After the success of Lost, JJ Abrams went on to reboot Star Trek, and turned the franchise into a lens flare-fuelled spectacle that was equally short on substance and meaning.

One can only imagine what Beinoff and Weiss will do to Star Wars next. I don’t mean them any ill, but one can only hope that Disney is aware: there is still time to prevent further damage to world literature.

In the finale they wrote and directed themselves (instead of leaving it to professionals), the duo inserted the rather cheesy line: “There is nothing more powerful than a good story.”

The operative word here is “good”. With excessive pandering to short attention spans and an emphasis on explosions and sex, it appears that the meat and bones of what makes a good story appear to have been forgotten.

George RR Martin has repeatedly quoted William Faulkner – himself no stranger to sound and fury – and his view about how the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.

This conflict requires patient gardening, and the time and space for things to grow organically.

Was there really any question about how Jon would decide? There is no conflict if there has never been space for genuine love to grown between Jon and Dany; no conflict if Dany – in a complete and inexplicable departure from everything she has stood for thus far – has just committed an atrocity far, far worse than any other antagonist in the story ever has, right in front of Jon’s eyes.

The Faulkner quote is taken from his Nobel Prize speech, in which he worries about how younger writers were writing “not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

George RR Martin gets a lot of flak for taking so long to finish his books. But at least there is some assumption that it is a delay borne of love and perfectionism.

Beinoff and Weiss appear to have subverted our expectations for some real work to be put into the ending this story well – a little too eager perhaps to exchange Valyrian steel for lightsabres.

 

NATHANIEL TAN is director of media and communications at Emir Research, a think tank focused on data-driven policy research, centred on principles of Engagement, Moderation, Innovation and Rigour.