You Win or You Die – Reflections on the Final Seasons of Game of Thrones

George R. R. Martin’s epic has never been a personal favorite, but I’ve read all five novels and now I’ve finally caught up to the HBO series as well. Initially, my decision was to stop watching it, as I don’t find much delight in brutally killing off characters I’m fond of; but the hype around these latest episodes turned my head around.

Turns out that they weren’t worth the hype, but they taught me a thing or two about the creator’s integrity.

As a reader and a viewer, I’m pretty sensitive. Gore isn’t an issue, unless it’s a medical procedure, but goofy guts and red Kool Aid is okay. Pain and loss are a different matter, and miserable last moments for a character with personality and soul are a terrible thing to witness.

You might guess that going through A Song of Ice and Fire, or Game of Thrones as it’s called on tv, hasn’t been always very fun. I’ve been genuinely hurt and angry, and not always in a good way. I still wish I could erase the death of Oberyn Martell from my memory.

However, watching these last two seasons of the tv series forced me to see the earlier developments with new eyes.

George R. R. Martin can be absolutely brutal and he pisses on genre conventions, often intentionally, as if he was a literary troll. But most everything that happened, happened for a reason and as a logical consequence of the choices that the characters made. The characters’ fates were true to the established fantasy world we were immersed in. At bebst, they were pretty interesting musings on power politics and intrigue.

As the series went on, I found out that betrayal-laden intrigue isn’t enjoyable to me. I’ve had enough bad experiences of double-talking and betrayals in real life, and honesty and consideration are some of the greatest virtues I know. In consuming fiction, it also gets tiresome to have to guess the intentions of the mendacious characters and moreover, of the writer.

When the writer has integrity, I can look back and respect what’s been going on. I might not have enjoyed it, and I might not revisit it ever again, but it’s all there. You see that the writer has a point in having a character murdered at their wedding, and later on his relatives reminiscing that and using it as a point of reference: never again, don’t do the same mistake, they can’t be trusted. That brutality has a place. Used well, it can be used as a foundation for the future events.

The seventh season of Game of Thrones used this well, and from my perspective, it was quite enjoyable. After years of mistrust, it felt good to see some characters smile and tell the truth. One of the highlights of the season was when the Onion Knight brought Gendry to meet Jon and urged him to lie about his identity, but Gendry straight up told the truth. They smiled and greeted with honesty.

The same seventh season had its fair share of problems, especially regarding the travel times, but this last season is on its own level of bad writing.

My meme game is as old as the world.

However much George R. R. Martin writes shocking scenes, I maintain they were justified. You might not like it, but they made sense.

The tv series has devolved into delivering shocking scenes and tearjerkers and nothing else, and the best examples at the moment of writing were in episodes 3 and 4 of the last season.

The death of the second dragon is probably the most illustrative here. It felt very Martinian, but only in the most superficial sense of tearing down genre tropes. We get majestic beasts flying in the sky with the epic musical theme glaring in the background when it’s suddenly cut short by a giant arbalest bolt piercing the other dragon. And then another, and another, and another, until Daenerys’ impaled child drowns in the sea.

You expect us to believe that Daenerys would brazenly lead her last remaining dragons, her children, into an ambush? That she wouldn’t have flown high enough to spot the ships beforehand? And moreover, would Euron Greyjoy and his fleet really have concentrated their anti-aircreature fire to one dragon only? All the bolts hit the lone dragon, but missed the one carrying Daenerys. Whatever Martin’s faults as a writer, I find it hard to believe that he would ever write something this blatantly stupid and formulaic.

But The Last Night, the episode with the long-awaited battle against the dead, was even worse. It killed off plenty of characters and everyone had a death more stupid and dishonest than the last. Perhaps the most illustrative was the beginning of the fight. The dothraki screamers had flaming swords and they rushed into the night, only to be extinguished, one by one. Their hope died in that very instant, and my hope for decent writing followed. It was crushed by the mountain of stupidity.

You have Winterfell filled with all the brighest living military minds of the established world – with the possible exception of Euron Greyjoy, every single one of the best military commanders of the world were in the same place. Together they’ve planned, plotted, lost and won multiple battles against both the living and the dead, and survived. And they know this is a desperate battle. There are people like Varys whose literally one job is intelligence – if not military intelligence, at least it is to know things. And they really start off the battle by sending their cavalry into the dark? You expect us to believe that they would only use the catapults to shoot fire when the cavalry were already underway? That their only strategy was to use a teenage boy as bait and stand firm and fight to the last man, with the sole ace-up-in-the-sleeve being the trench of fire – and may I remind that it only worked because of a prayer. You establish the dothraki as a frightening force in the very first season only to have them all killed like this?

Everyone recognized the importance of the Three-Eyed Raven. He was stated as the symbol of life, of memory. They knew the Night King – who, by a purely personal opinion, always looked stupid as hell, and they never should’ve flaunted these monsters in the tv series like they did – was coming for Raven-Bran. He was set up as bait and established as the most important thing here, and they had absolutely no plans whatsover to defend him?

Nothing in the episode felt like it was the consequence of the internal logic of the world. The deaths were clearly decided beforehand, and they were the victims of poor writing. The dothraki were the victims of the need to see a visually pleasing symbol. Ser Beric and his wonderful voice was the victim of some sick need to see a crucifixion symbol. Theon and Lyanna were the victims of desperately stupid charges, and while I could maybe forgive Lyanna for her young age, Theon’s attack was just stupid. Ser Jorah’s death probably made some sense but I had stopped caring at that point because the episode had convinced me already that this was no longer canon. It’s worse than most fan fiction I’ve read, with a budget that it doesn’t deserve.

If you have ever written anything longer than a paragraph, you probably know that the real difficulty is not in coming up with good scenes, or funny jokes, or nice turns of phrase. Writing is about staying true to the whole, about connecting your good ideas, and about knowing when you just have to let go of some absolutely brilliant stuff because they don’t serve a purpose. Writing is, like they say, about killing your darlings; and ironically, both Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame that killed off many beloved characters, feel like they let all the darlings live.

The greatest victims in The Long Night were logic and suspension of disbelief. It severed my emotional connection to Westeros and the storyline as a whole. Nothing sad that comes now, doesn’t mean a thing, because it is no longer something that happens in the world. The series has proven that it only cares about delivering superficially emotional scenes, and like Cersei Lannister, uses any means necessary to achieve them.

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die,” Cersei said, a long time ago. It felt real and terrible. The game had its absolutely unforgiving rules that made sense, and it laid a foundation for the series. The sole pleasure in the last two seasons of the show is in rooting for the characters who wish to change that game; and the only real sorrow is that very writers of the show ruined it by cheating.

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