My first novel, Farisa’s Crossing, is on track for serialization beginning April 26, 2020, with the full book available by January 17, 2021.
(Minor editing for clarity was made on the morning of May 19.)
I hope I’m wrong about this, and a brilliant last episode could change everything. That said, it appears so far that the final season of Game of Thrones has failed on account of hasty writing. The Night King plot seems to have been under-explained in service to a Long Night–inspired prequel; the ending of Season 8 feels more like a homework exercise, designed to hit plot points without much attention to craft, than it does a story.
Let me remark that it’s entirely possible that what appear to be lapses in story craft are, in fact, artistic debt. With every word of a reader’s time the writer uses, the author incurs such debt; only when a story is complete can a final judgment be made about whether the debt is paid off. It is a possibility that the last episode, to be aired on May 19, fixes the apparent problems. As of now, though, I see so many issues that it’s hard to me to picture a resolution of all of what, so far, appear to be frank artistic errors.
What are those flaws?
To start, stupidity has been used far too often as a plot device. Rhaegal is Daenerys’s son (in spirit) and a prime military asset. Thirty seconds of thought, by any of her allies, would have prevented him from dying in such a facile way. War is hard to write, sure, and no one’s asking for (or, in fantasy, wants) perfect realism, but stupidity’s utility as a plot device has been overdrawn. I suspect I know why this error was made– it, and other apparent failures of craft, derive from changes made by HBO to Euron Greyjoy– and I will analyze that further, below.
Suspension of disbelief collapsed utterly, for me, in Episode 5 with the burning of King’s Landing. Don’t get me wrong. Daenerys was always a severely flawed heroine. I could have seen her turning into an antagonist. A war criminal, though? It seemed like a plot contrivance. To use Missandei’s death as cause for her turn toward atrocity is unbelievable. Although she is dogmatic, arrogant, and temperamental, Daenerys has always been principled, and it violates one of her core principles to take that path– it’s not something she’d do lightly. Moreover, Daenerys has seen (and brought) so much death and war that it is unreasonable to suggest that the death of another confidante would lead her to murder tens of thousands.
I’m going to try to give the final season a developmental edit. I will stick to the mostly-tragic sort of ending that I believe both George R. R. Martin and the HBO showrunners intended and that is almost certainly correct for the series. I will have to turn away from this obnoxious and poorly-executed specific bad ending.
What I’m Not Writing About
This analysis is not a criticism of the unfinished book series, A Song of Ice and Fire. The book series is different altogether, and I consider myself unqualified to criticize it beyond the impression of an educated reader. Why so? It’s not what I would write. I intend on keeping my career in technology, so The Antipodes could possibly be the only novel-length fiction I publish. I have no interest in writing grimdark fantasy. As grimdark isn’t what I write, and I don’t much enjoy reading it, my opinion of Martin’s work doesn’t mean very much. It would be a pointless exercise in ego to give a “how I would write it” synopsis of Martin’s work, in which I risk comparing it to some imagined but entirely different piece of work. Instead, shouldn’t I go and write my own book?
I feel more qualified to assess the HBO series because the writers clearly did want to garner increased viewership with the promise of traditional heroism. The arc of platonic affection between Brienne and Jaime– which culminated his knighting of her in Episode 2, and was then trashed to make the woman his one-night stand– does not keep the spirit of grimdark. As the HBO series led us on with promises more in line with traditional fantasy (in which we’ll tolerate tragic endings, but demand traditional value-positive heroism) I feel more equipped to criticize it.
There are a few other reasons why I want to be careful in what I say about George R. R. Martin.
First, I feel that he is often unduly criticized, especially on a personal level, for what he chooses to write. I don’t believe that he’s a misogynist and he’s certainly not a feudalist. I do not assume he is a nihilist or narcissist, simply because he writes about nihilistic, narcissistic people. It is too often assumed that the moral flaws of protagonists reflect on their writers, and although this has been proven true too often for comfort in literary fiction (not to mention Hollywood; see: Woody Allen)– I do not like the stereotype. It limits what people can write. One especially loathsome portrayal of George R. R. Martin– I was physically angry as I watched this– was in the otherwise-enjoyable TV series Younger, focused on the publishing industry. (“Beware the wrath of the sky.”) The character of “Edward L. L. Moore” was sloppily-written and offensive to the fantasy genre as a whole; it was irresponsible. The fantasy genre is no more juvenile, prima facie, than another “literary” novel about a 57-year-old male professor of literature sleeping with undergrads. The only thing we know about George R. R. Martin from his work is that he writes dark fantasy (“grimdark”) and that he writes it well. Speculation about him as a person should stop.
Second: although Martin’s vision of fantasy is different from mine, the author of Ice and Fire has done a great deal for the genre. He is far from the first to write fantasy to an adult standard and he won’t be the last (what up, yo) but he has shown to a massive audience that it can be done. He and I are certainly not competitors in any way. On the contrary, a successful, competent author brings others up.
Third and relatedly, I am not an envious author– but I don’t want that look. As a Bayesian, I judge it far more likely than not that his series will outsell mine, for decades to come. (I would only have a chance of outselling him if the Antipodes were, as well, adapted for the screen. The spring of 2019 has left me under-attracted to that notion.)
Fourth, I respect Martin’s vision. He has created a compelling world that captures late-medieval ideology (Westeros), Renaissance-era politics (Free Cities and the smarter Westerosi), and Lovecraftian horror-fantasy (Essos; the Land of Always Winter). The originality and precision of his worldbuilding are admirable.
Fifth, as I mentioned before: since grimdark isn’t what I choose to write, I can’t possibly give suggestions to the book series without the risk of turning it into something else– which, again, would be an expense of time better used on my own work.
Sixth: in a way, I’m indebted to George R. R. Martin. His work takes what many of us feel to be an extreme position on a spectrum between (a) Tolkein’s brand of fantastic heroism and (b) the moral relativism favored by his “grimdark” as well as by modern literary fiction. (He has, at least in the popular perception, created this spectrum within fantasy.) By doing so, he has opened a dialogue on what the fantasy genre should be. Farisa’s Crossing lives, I would like to think, in the middle of this continuum. My work is quite dark– it takes place in a steampunk world where the Pinkertons won, now control the entire economy, and are fast becoming Nazis– but I strive to give hope that a moral north star still exists and can be seen on the one night out of four that isn’t cloudy. Farisa is not perfect, but she is genuinely good.
George R. R. Martin is not the first to write complex, adult fantasy, but he has shown the world that it is possible, and for that I feel I owe him a great deal.
I don’t see Martin making basic mistakes of craft. The thing I dislike most about his book series, to be honest about it, is his tendency to end on cliffhangers. His ensemble approach, with rotating points of view, worked beautifully in the first two books– it gave us different and often opposing perspectives on shared experiences– but as the plotlines separated (geographically and thematically) I found it to be borderline untenable. I don’t think he wrote with manipulative intent; by the modern standard, it is preferred to end chapters on cliffhangers and push of-the-episode denouement (“sequel”) into the next one. This gives a can’t-put-it-down feel to books with one or two plotlines but it fails when 250 pages exist before a plotline is resumed. But this is a subtle mistake (if it can be called that; arguably, it is not even that but a difference in style) and de minimis compared to the Writing 101 mistakes of the HBO series.
What Went Wrong With Season 8?
I want to make it clear. I believe the staff writers who worked on Game of Thrones, including the ill-fated Season 8, are competent. They are not dumb, lazy, or inexperienced people. On the contrary, I believe they’re excellent at their jobs, relative to constraints. They worked on an ambitious existing series, without source material, under incredible deadlines. Although 20 months elapsed between the end of Season 7 and the beginning of this one, I doubt the writers had more than two or three months of “blue sky” writing time, given the immense complexity of the project.
Also, let’s be real here: great writing takes time. Commercial novels are measured in pages per hour; literary novels in hours per page. Seven to ten rounds of revision (before line and copy editing) is usual when writing to a literary standard. The process takes years even for the most skilled authors. I expect The Antipodes to require 15–25 years. The HBO staff writers did not have this kind of flexibility with their schedule.
In fact, I believe that one major decision caused the story arc of Game of Thrones to fail, and it’s one I don’t think the staff writers had much say in.
I won’t opine on the pacing, either. Pacing is quite subjective. All forms of narrative, whether on stage or in print, speed up as they near the end. Readers demand it. As the anvil falls, the rope at the other end whips around. Role-playing games give the players an airship (or equivalent) in the late-middle for a reason. I don’t fault HBO for the rapid pacing of Seasons 7 and 8. It’s not an artistic failure because it’s what readers and viewers want at this point.
There have been serious omissions (e.g., of motivation) in the late seasons, but those are not pacing problems. In fact, compared to a traditional movie (in which an entire story is told in two hours) the pacing of Thrones remains slow even in the final season. There are plenty of elements that could have been cut to make room for what’s missing.
So, with all of that said: why did Game of Thrones fail toward the ending?
As I said, George R. R. Martin writes dark fantasy (“grimdark”) that approaches the nihilistic. I do not intend to say that his series (which is not yet complete) “is nihilistic” and, again, I make no observation about him as a person. However, he writes about nihilistic, narcissistic, and narrow people. In characterization, he is closer to the MFA-educated metrorealism that is today called “literary fiction” than many in that camp would like to admit. When it comes to characterization, he doesn’t write heroes; for personality traits, he gives us the same middle-heavy bell curve that we encounter in real life.
Robert Baratheon defines the good life as “crack[ing] skulls and fuck[ing] girls”. Illyrio Mopatis, a fat old man, weeps in front of a statue of himself at age sixteen. Plenty of Martin’s characters admit they enjoy killing, although few people (even, if not especially, among those who must do it lawfully in war) actually do. Drinking, food, sex, fighting, and especially power seem to be the things that matter most to the characters in Martin’s world.
The author also indulges a trope that I find tiresome in fantasy: Adults Are Evil. (Arya, in the books, is a prepubescent girl.) As a middle-aged man, I am too old to hate that trope, but I must laugh at its absurdity. (Those over sixty can apply for “wise mentor” slots if willing to die in late Act II. Everyone between twenty-one and fifty-nine must be incompetent or malignant, and usually both.) Living in the real world, I find that age has no correlation with moral decency or value. If anything, one of the major improvements HBO has made on the source material is their aging of the characters: Jon, Sansa, and Arya are adults at the series end. I usually find “Adults Are Evil” to be exquisitely unskillful, but I give Martin a pass for it, because it actually fits his nihilistic, depressing world quite well.
The truth is that Martin’s brand of grimdark nihilism isn’t palatable to a large audience. People make jokes about Cthulhu, but few people actually deign to read Lovecraft. The HBO series, wisely, pulled away from the unpalatable grimdark roots of the book series. It turned true-neutral Arya into the face of chaotic good– and made her an adult with agency rather than an unlucky child. Tyrion and Varys, whose actions in the books were reprehensible, were made into genuine good humans in the HBO series. Between Jaime and Brienne, we got a beautifully depicted arc of platonic affection culminating before the Long Night. The HBO series sold us hope in a series about more than “cracking skulls and fucking girls” and that stupid iron chair.
The Northern Crisis, it seemed, brought a few of the series’s characters to focus on what was truly important in life. Daenerys, for all her flaws, chose to go north and fight in the war that mattered rather than the petty squabble in the south. We saw hope emerging, despite a desolate world. This is something I do with Farisa, too; I think I’m far from alone in that approach. We love it when beautiful, competent people exist despite a horrible world. When it comes to George R. R. Martin, I’d respect him for sticking with grimdark; I will also respect him if he gives us a more traditionally meaningful ending.
The HBO series broke away from grimdark. They seemed committed to the pro-meaning side. So, while we knew we’d get a tragic ending, we expected to be freed from the depressing nihilism of grimdark. Right?
Nopers! Why? Because fuck you, that’s why.
The Walkers were dispatched in a “Long Night” that seemed to last a regular night. Brienne became Jaime’s one-night-stand– because women are totally at their best when used as plot pieces to showcase a man’s moral depravity. Daenerys went on the rag and torched fifty thousand innocent people, because that is totally a realistic depiction of mental illness, and because women are emotionally unstable and that’s why they commit most of the violent crimes. (Oh, wait. No. That’s wrong.) Villains like Euron and Cersei who deserved humiliating deaths got I-die-but-I-win Heisenbergian endings, without the positive character traits that made it acceptable for Mr. White to get such an end.
It would have been fine (as I’ve said) to stick with grimdark and continue on to what appear to be Martin’s depressing plot points. There is no artistic reason why Daenerys couldn’t become a war criminal; it was foreshadowed that she might. It would have also been fine to continue to diverge from the apparent moral nihilism of the early work, and stick with the traditional heroism we saw toward the end. I feel utterly manipulated by HBO, though, for the switchback and the utter repeal of character growth.
The ultra-cynical view of this is that HBO deliberately gave us a more palatable (less nihilistic) series– knowing that high production values and copious nudity would only keep viewers invested for so long in an otherwise nihilistic story– only to swerve back into nihilism, perhaps in order to anger people and maximize buzz for the show.
1 + 1 = -5
Even though there are no rules in writing, there are rules. At least, there are guidelines. Sol Stein famously says, “One plus one equals one-half.” This is an observation of what I call rhetorical non-monotonicity.
To explain the notion, let’s consider that a die-hard logician (or, say, a number-crunching Bayesian) must perceive evidence as only making an argument (stronger). That’s monotonicity. A strong argument followed by a weak argument is strictly more evidence than a strong argument alone.
Of course, that’s not how we respond to real arguments made by real humans, and there are strong social reasons for us to be that way. For example, if I’m trying to sell you on creationism (which I’m not, because while a theist/deist, I believe evolution by natural selection is true) I might point out all the “holes” in evolution. I believe that irreducible complexity arguments are flawed and lead to an incorrect conclusion, but there is enough meat to them to merit further study and (likely) refutation. Now, compare Presentations A and B. Under A, the proponent of creationism focuses on biological arguments alone; under B, he makes all the same arguments and continues on to say, “Evolution is also untrue because it contradicts the Christian Bible, which millions of people believe to be literally true.” Which is more convincing? If we expect logical monotonicity, then B (which presents a stronger argument, then a weak one) is. However, most of us would find presentation A more convincing; B supplements A’s case with an additional social-proof argument– and we know from our history that those are nearly useless in assessing scientific truth. We feel, after Presentation B, that we’ve endured a sales pitch. That’s rhetorical non-monotonicity in action.
Rhetorical non-monotonicity applies to art, as well, and writing in particular. One of the oft-cited “rules” to writing is “Show, don’t tell”. Actually, writers “tell” all the time. Showing one element often involves telling three supporting details. Show-don’t-tell expansions have to end at some point, lest the story ramble on for a million words. What often falls flat is to show and tell.
For example, consider this snippet: “It was a beautiful day. The sun shone, the clouds were brighter than clean linen, and the faint golden cast of the October wood suggested treasure within.” In most cases, one of those two sentences (the first tells; the second shows) ought to be cut. Which one? It depends on context. But, together, they weaken each other. That’s a case of one plus one equaling one-half.
Intensifying adjectives and adverbs function the same way. Overselling only works with ironic intent; when a serial killer narrates, “It was a beautiful day”, he is not commenting on the weather. There’s nothing wrong with the sentence, “We knew we were totally safe here.”, so long as the POV character is not safe there.
It is, in my view, extraordinarily difficult for a writer to know when one plus one is one-half and when it is two. In the second book of a series, the writer must offer a “reboot” that repeats details of book one. And to offer exactly three details (“rule of three”) in escalating power seems (although it is arguably repetitive, to suggest the same principle in three ways) remarkably effective.
There are times when one plus one equals one-half. “It was a very beautiful day” is a weaker sentence than “It was a beautiful day”. There are times, though, when one plus one equals minus five. Unskillful writing draws attention to itself. Metafictional elements and fourth-wall breaks can spice up the middle of a story, but toward the end they approach the sin of bathos. Most readers or viewers aren’t aware of the specific artistic sin; they just have a sense that the work “feels off” or is bad. Although Daenerys’s turn toward irrational evil is not bathos, and although it has been foreshadowed that she may become a destructive force or an antagonist, her turn feels “off” because of writing that has called too much attention to itself.
M. Night Shyamalan is infamous for his overuse of plot twists– his twists often call so much attention to themselves that they feel forced, like they exist for the sake of plot and are not organic. In general, twists follow a “zero, one, or many” principle. A straightforward story with no twists can work; a story with a single twist can work. Thrillers use frequent twists as a matter of course. What rarely works is to have two major twists– especially when the second negates the first. In that case, plot will always draw attention to itself and “feel off”. One plus one will equal minus five.
That’s what we got with HBO’s Game of Thrones. The show diverged from apparent nihilism and toward a more traditional heroic epic. A character we hated from the first episode, Jaime Lannister, showed his nobility in the Northern Crisis. And then, to hit what appear to be Martin’s original plot points, the show swerved back into grimdark nihilism, leaving us as viewers to feel cheated.
Let me propose one fix to the plot of Thrones.
The Rules of the Fix
I don’t want to add personal touches. I’m playing the role of a subordinate editor whose job is to make the product better. So I’ll aim for minimalism in my fixes. In particular, I’ll keep the plot mostly as-is, including the burning of King’s Landing by Drogon. The characters who die will still die, and around the same time.
I will, however, attempt fix the egregious flaws of craft, without making major changes to the story as made.
Euron (and Rhaegal)
Of all the characters the showrunners changed for the worst, Euron Greyjoy ranks at the top. They seem to have gotten him and his purpose entirely wrong.
Sure, he’s evil; but Euron of the books isn’t “just evil”. We’ve already grown tired of regular evil: Joffrey, Ramsay Bolton, and Cersei Lannister. We’ve endured horrible people for eight seasons.
In the books, Euron steps beyond petty sadism and bland ambition; he has something the TV series has written out of him: magic.
In the books, he’s not just a bad guy. He’s a menace equivalent in threat level to the Others (in the show, White Walkers). He has a magical horn that is believed to control dragons. He’s been to Valyria, a dangerous ruined city that has become Ice and Fire‘s version of hell; and he’s been trained in Asshai, the ultra-Lovecraftian capital of magic. He could probably teach Melisandre a thing or two.
The Others seem to use inhuman ice magic; Euron brings the opposite: fire magic, with the distinctly human elements of narcissism, cruelty, and ambition.
However, for some reason I’ll never understand, HBO took away his magic. The showrunners turned him into a dopey pirate and a dirtbag pickup artist. Epic fail.
Stripping Euron of his magic broke other bits of the show. For one thing, it required Daenerys’s stupidity to bring about the death of Rhaegal. (I think it was right to have Euron kill Rhaegal, as he is the ice/fire dual of the Night King and therefore ought to kill one out of symmetry; but it should have been better executed.) Furthermore, since the bad guys lost their mage, Bran had to be rendered mostly useless, lest the good side be over-powered.
I would have killed and abused the dragons in a different way.
Two of the dragons (Viserion, Drogon) were named after bad men. It made sense for them to be put to evil purposes, one way or another.
Rhaegal, though, was named after a good man who died with a bad reputation. Most fitting, I think, would be not to let Euron control that dragon, but to allow Euron the image of a dragon. For Euron to use Rhaegal’s visage for illusionism would fit the theme of the series (“power resides where men think it resides”). Euron could become a tyrant of King’s Landing on the hologram of a dragon alone.
There’s more to say about fixing Euron; I’ll get to that later on when I cover Daenerys and Drogon.
I like that HBO made Brienne interesting. In the books, her chapters are a boring slog. The series put life into an underutilized character. Good on them for that.
Unfortunately, a genuine arc of platonic affection and mutual respect was trashed in favor of supernumerary on-screen sexing. We ought to be beyond the point in time where writers use female characters as props to showcase a man’s moral failures. It’s the current year, people.
I would rip out everything that happens after the Long Night. Brienne deserves better and so, for that matter, does Jaime.
Brienne has a new home in the North and, certainly, a role to play in rebuilding society after the catastrophe. If Sansa becomes Queen of the North, she can be Queensguard.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s painful to be crushed by rocks. In prose, that could be written as the sort of death we feel Cersei deserves, with her screaming in the darkness until she runs out of oxygen. Slow carbon dioxide poisoning is (quite likely) worse than mere strangulation; it’s a terminal panic attack that can go on for hours. Burial alive is a frightening way to go.
Still, Cersei’s death isn’t cathartic on camera. It’s far too impersonal. We feel let down; we deserve more.
Moreover, the “emotional” reunion between the ex-twin/lovers was unskillful beyond description. I am more moved by an average fart than I was by that scene.
To get Cersei’s death right is challenging. I believe I know what the “perfect death” for that character is, but before I get into that, let’s consider what doesn’t work.
First, an ultra-violent death (meaning, one that exceeds the regular violence of the show) would fail; the gore would get in the way of catharsis. If we took joy in Cersei’s torture (or worse) we’d be as bad as she is. We don’t actually want to see her get the same treatment she and “Robert Strong” gave Septa Unella. That would make us the bad guys.
Second: Cersei can’t get the “villain dies laughing” death (that was unskillfully given to Euron) because that only works for chaotic evil. A true chaotic-evil villain is like a rabid dog that must be destroyed. There’s no joy in seeing such a villain suffer. But when the villain is humanly evil– neutral evil– we demand that she suffer. The ending need not be violent (and it is most skillful, often, when it is not) but it must tear her apart, psychologically, like the Bastille was dismantled brick by brick on July 14, 1789.
Public shame can work, but in Cersei’s case, it was already done (Sept of Baelor) and she came back from it. So that’s not enough, when it comes to Cersei’s death.
Noting these challenges, I believe the perfect death for Cersei is… to die at the hands of King’s Landing’s street children.
Her death ought to repay debts (as Lannisters do) to the poorest of the poor– and the orphans her wars have made. I’ll leave the level of violence to the writers. It could be an off-camera clubbing, where the viewers only get one terrified scream. Or it could be a bloody, protracted slicing-apart with dirty seashells, one that leaves her flesh in ribbons. It doesn’t matter, from my artistic perspective, whether it’s a painful death or a regular (by Thrones standards) one that she gets.
This death is perfect for Cersei. To start, she hates the common people and they hate her. Moreover, her conceit is that her evil is all done for her children. (Side question: why did viewers hate Skyler on Breaking Bad, even though she saw through that conceit, when they love Tyrion, who fell for that lie?) Thus, she ought to be killed by children among the millions of other peoples’ kids that she didn’t give a damn about.
That notion of justice is satisfying, too, in the context of today’s world. Consider that the entire global-corporate-capitalist system is powered not by otherworldly evil (Euron) or stupid sadism (Joffrey) but by those who do not think of themselves as evil, but nonetheless do evil things to acquire and preserve zero-sum advantages for their own progeny. I’m not an anti-natalist, but the kibbutzniks who disavowed the purported “virtue of family”– the narcissistic tendency to humans to care only about the future in the context of a tiny number of its citizens– were on to something. More crimes are committed to keep corporate executives’ children in private schools than for the “evil” reasons more typical of narrative. To have Cersei killed by Flea Bottom urchins offers the same poetic justice as does the humiliation of parents who participated in the recent college admissions scandal.
Cersei ruined the world for everyone else’s children, so her children could rule. I can think of no better death for her.
Some people said this fight was “fan service” that didn’t belong. I disagree.
Sure, it was an over-the-top, comic-book battle, set against a background of fire, on a stairway to nowhere. It served little narrative purpose, but that’s OK. In fact, the irony of Sandor’s quest to kill (again) what is already dead and repulsive, I appreciate. It fits Sandor’s style of dark humor.
No changes. Cleganebowl stays.
We’ll probably see Arya assassinate someone in the last episode of Thrones, but I would have used her in a specific way that makes sense in the context of Ice and Fire.
Arya’s chaotic good, so she must assassinate someone who deserves it. She killed the Night King, the “big bad” of ice magic. Who deserves to die, and furthermore functions as a “big bad” of fire magic? Euron, if his original powers were restored.
Jaime killing Euron makes little sense. That was a useless fight. If its purpose was to demonstrate the value of the prize that is Cersei, through the social proof of two failed men fighting over her, well… the whole device failed. Throw that out. Jaime doesn’t kill Euron at all; they never meet.
Arya kills Euron. Whose face does she use? Cersei’s, after the street children are done with her. It fits Cersei, too. The queen cared about her image; for Arya to (literally) rip her face away from her is (once again) poetic justice.
After that, I like the idea of Arya retiring from killing, and going out for a more nonviolent sort of adventure. Though Thrones ought to remain a tragedy, not everyone needs to get a miserable ending.
I would have Arya and Gendry end up together. The scene between the two, under belief that it will lead into a romantic relationship, was a an example (rare in Thrones) of positive sexuality. I don’t know why anyone would have a problem with it. Don’t get me wrong; I’d be furious if an author explicitly said I could name my daughter after a character, then paired her with a bad boy. Gendry, though, is about as far from a bad boy as it gets.
Arya’s initial rejection of him (or, more precisely, her rejection of the role as a traditional lady) makes sense and is not unusual by the standards of a romantic arc. The characters ought to be able to make it work. Gendry seems like a genuinely good human; I don’t think he’d force her to choose between adventure (whatever that means in her next phase of life) and romantic love. He should want for her to have both. And she should be able to have both. Again, it’s the current year.
The diablo ex machina of the penultimate episode made this woman’s arc a joke.
I expected Daenerys to become, if not a villain, an antagonist toward the end of the series. There was plenty of foreshadowing for that. What I find absurd and a bit offensive is the suggestion that “madness” causes principled people to snap and sic their nuke lizards on cities. That is not how actual mental illness works. It sets on gradually, and people with it are no violent, in general, than the rest of the population.
We also endure the “bitches be cray” trope; a woman proves herself unfit to rule by committing a war crime, just because she can.
There are contexts in which I would believe Dany would make the wrong decision. Game of Thrones did not provide one. Daenerys appeared to snap because the plot needed her to snap.
Furthermore, there’s nowhere to go from this terrible plot point. What can really be done with Daenerys? She can be killed; we can watch her die; that’s about it. The penultimate episode’s twist traded an interesting heroine for a villain whose defining traits are (a) that she was once semi-good and (b) that she has a dragon. Boring.
She deserved better. I don’t mind heroes becoming villains over time. I don’t mind twist antagonists. I don’t mind Daenerys taking a tragic turn. There’s nothing wrong with any of that.
The twist in her character was implausible. Yes, the beheading of her confidante was terrible, but this woman has seen (and brought) war. If she had pure evil in her, we would have seen it long ago. We saw a principled but ruthless character that it was hard to root for, but we did not see pure evil.
Moral mystery characters, like Snape in Harry Potter and Rhaegar in this series, are easier to turn for good than evil. To do the latter takes far more skill and setup time than we saw.
As I would edit the final series, I’d make Daenerys innocent of the major crime (which still occurs). That’s not because I love the character. I don’t. I think she’s immature, dogmatic, and (like Jon, and unlike Sansa) unfit to rule. However, I don’t buy her sudden change into a war criminal. Antagonist, sure. Person who makes a bad decision under pressure, sure. Villain, maybe. Psychopath; no. We have already seen that she is not one.
The Burning of King’s Landing
The burning of King’s Landing is thematically necessary. I’m not going to shoehorn Thrones into a happy ending. It is a tragedy and it does not shrink from the horrors of war, including its morose effects on the common people. Millions were going to starve already, because of the dreadful conflict; but starvation isn’t nearly as cinematic as for a city to go up in flames. The Sack of King’s Landing stays.
So, if the burning still happens but Daenerys isn’t responsible, then who is?
We return to Euron.
His magic makes him far more menacing than the Golden Company. The Golden Company is easy to hate. People who’ll fight for Cersei’s money are like hit men in Sin City: no matter what you do to ’em, you don’t feel bad. They serve two purposes. One is (as mentioned) as mooks to get blown up or burned. Two: Cersei’s resorting to mercenaries shows that she has lost the respect of her people.
Machiavelli, though, gave us the final word on mercenaries: they don’t fight during winter, and it’s winter.
The Golden Company gives us the right to cheer when some people are burned alive, but they’re not that scary– especially given that HBO took away their elephants, because mahouts plus dragons right-facing-angle-bracket budget. Euron, as a magician, is terrifying.
Make him a warg.
After Arya kills Euron, he uses his last to warg into Drogon. Bran knows it’s coming, so he wargs in as well. Now we get a mind fight, inside a dragon, between two of the most powerful mages in the world: a Stark warg (ice mage) who has been north of the Wall, and a fire mage who’s been to Valyria and Asshai.
Daenerys fights to pound sense into her child. Drogon (while Euron is in control) ruins King’s Landing. Bran wins the warg-fight but the dragon ends up dead (as well as Euron). Daenerys lives.
She’s innocent, but the world doesn’t know that.
HBO appears to have turned this heroine into a war criminal. It’s possible that Drogon was warged by some evil mage, but that hasn’t been foreshadowed. It appears that Daenerys has broken bad and it’s a fait accompli. There’s nothing left to do but kill her, and there’ll be little emotion or catharsis because people have died for far less. By Westerosi logic, to execute Daenerys-the-war-criminal is the only thing that can be done. There’s no choice and, when there’s no choice, there’s no drama.
Daenerys-the-innocent, who nearly died riding a warged dragon, and who appears to have done something unforgivable… now she’s a source of drama. An innocent who appears to the world to be guilty? That’s painful to watch, sure, but good writers make it hard for the heroes.
Tyrion’s bright and he loves to argue. We’ve seen him argue for himself. He sometimes loses, but he’s good at it. Now, in the past, he’s been competent– but a competent person becomes heroic when she uses her strength not for herself, but toward another’s benefit.
The best lawyer in all of Westeros ought to be the first to believe Daenerys’s account– that something outside her comprehension happened, and she lost control of Drogon. We’re putting Tyrion into 12 Angry Men. All of Westeros thinks she’s guilty; he thinks (knows) she’s innocent.
We’ve learned that Tyrion’s brilliance was of the old world, when reputation and the throne mattered most. He’s not very competent in the new one. Considering that, and the fact that Ice and Fire is almost certainly a tragedy and will hold Daenerys accountable for bad decisions in the past (including the burning-alive of Dickon Tarly); I have to conclude that Tyrion is unsuccessful and Daenerys must die.
Personally, I’d put Samwell Tarly on the tribunal that must decide on Daenerys’s innocence, and although I like that character, I’d have him get it wrong (just as he was a liability in the Battle of Witnerfell.) His vote for her guilt, in (say) a 4–3 decision, dooms her.
Tyrion, as Daenerys’s advocate, does not die; in fact, his reputation improves in the following years as Westeros learns of her innocence. But he lives out the rest of his life in the Free Cities. Tyrion’s tragic turn, in the series, began when he rejected the opportunity to flee with Shae (who genuinely loved him, unlike in the books) to the Free Cities. His exile from Westeros (possibly self-imposed) must atone for this.
Jon Snow, as interim ruler of Westeros, recused himself from the vote on Daenerys’s innocence, and he does not want to kill her, but by honor he must. “He who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”
After killing Daenerys, Jon is in no emotional state to rule and installs in power a man with a weak personality who has as many reasons as the others to be disgusted by the game of thrones: Edmure Tully. He’s the interim leader of the Seven (or Six?) Kingdoms while a constitution is drafted.
Jon goes home to rebuild the North. Samwell Tarly goes with him.
He (or Samwell) demands to know, from Bran, whether Daenerys was innocent. They find out that they were wrong. Jon and Samwell, stricken by grief and guilt, decide to honor Daenerys’s memory by building a better Westeros. Jon offers his services to the north and reconstitutes the Night’s Watch, this time focused on protecting rather than warring against the Free Folk. He strives for positive relations with the Children of the Forest and (if relevant) the Others/White Walkers.
Alternate, darker possibility: the White Walkers aren’t dead. In fact, the dragons’ death has made their spooky and possibly malignant ice magic stronger. Jon Snow enlists their aid for the purpose of reviving Daenerys. As in “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs, it doesn’t end well.
Edmure, as interim ruler of (southern) Westeros, is largely ineffectual. Jon is an emotional wreck after (a) killing his lover-aunt and (b) learning she was innocent of the crime for which he killed her. Though both men have the wish to build a better Westeros, Sansa must take the lead at rebuilding society.
(This assumes that HBO doesn’t erase her character growth, as it has done far too often, and make her a naif again.)
Sansa would be good at this. She’d probably enjoy it, too. Sansa might be elected the first president of the Constitutional Republic of Westeros.
Davos began the series illiterate, but he was always smart. He should become a maester. Perhaps he is the one (rather than Samwell) who writes the final account of what happened in Westeros. Having seen war and the unnecessary death of an innocent girl (Shireen), Davos writes an account of the myriad Westerosi disasters so they never occur again. Samwell may play a role in this effort, but I don’t see him taking the lead in it; he is too shaken by his role in Daenerys’s death.
It’s hard to give Bran a satisfying ending. In my series, Farisa (if she lives) presents a similar problem. After a “happy ending”, banal human evil must still exist; what role is there for an ultra-powerful but good mage? Does the mage intervene (and thereby deprive humans of autonomy) or retire from practice? I don’t want to self-spoil Farisa (although I have not fully decided on an ending, being several books away from it) so I’ll tread carefully.
With Bran, we assume that he’s “a good guy” because of his family name, but we know (a) that he no longer considers himself a Stark, and (b) from the books that many historical Starks were not good. Bloodraven was a morally complicated character before he became the Three-Eyed Raven and there’s no reason to assume he “became good” after his transition. So, Bran’s moral status remains opaque, and what did Old Nan say? “Crows are liars.” (And what does the name Bran mean?) Perhaps Bran’s agenda is darker than we expected.
Still, little foreshadows Bran turning evil, and it seems unlikely that ultra-good characters such as Jojen and Meera Reed would traffic him to a destiny they knew to be malign. So, it seems more likely than not that Bran should end as a force for good.
Perhaps Bran is the first to recognize that the Northern Crisis (from Walkers, or the Children of the Forest, or something new like those ice spiders we were promised) isn’t over. He uses his magic to rebuild the wall… like Bran the Builder.
There are darker possibilities, too: I find the theory that Bran accidentally created and in some sense “is” the Night King to be (in some form) fairly credible. Without such a tragic element, the affliction of Hodor seems a bit of a boondoggle. This being said, I think it would take several episodes to properly service this element of the story. Under the six-episode constraint, I’d use Bran to support the political happy ending (as Westeros’s memory, he helps the world heal) rather than giving him a personal tragic turn.
I’m not going to focus on “the Prince who was Promised” or any of those other prophecies. I don’t much care about them. The view I take of Martin’s work is that all the gods are equally nonexistent. If prophesied plot points can be hit, great; I don’t find it worth it to bend the story out of shape to service those, though.
Jaime, as I would end the series, still returns to King’s Landing– but to kill Cersei, and not because she sent Bronn to kill him, but because she sent him after Tyrion. Still, when Jaime sees the street children killing his twin sister, he considers this too cruel a death for her and tries to intervene. But he’s an aging knight whose power (like Tyrion’s old-world learning) is no good these days, and cannot.
After being unable to protect her, he either kills himself or (more hopefully) returns to the North to build his new life.
No changes. That man was (I believe) heavily inspired by Dr. Mengele, and I’m all for that sick fuck being killed by his own morbid creation rather than dying in South America or Pentos.
The Iron Throne
The true villains of Game of Thrones are outmoded ideas: a “true king” (divine right) or, in Daenerys’s case, a true queen. If anyone sits on the Iron Throne, we perceive Westeros as getting a thousand years of (to quote Jon Snow) “more of the same”.
No family (Tyrion excepted) represents “more of the same” as much as the Lannisters. Gold, greed, and extreme conservatism are their trade. They are the nihilism of Tyrion’s alcoholism as well as modern-day corporate America. Ice and Fire is about many things, but one among them is the delicious fall of the Lannisters. Tywin wanted a “dinn-a-stee” that would last a thousand years; well, nope.
So who gets the Iron Throne? Well, we could put it in a museum, but someone should still get to sit on it. It just seems right.
There is one living Lannister who is innocent: King Tommen’s cat, Ser Pounce.
Illyrio Mopatis, the slave trader who started all of this, is captured and lives out his days as “The Paw” (or, alternately, “The Scoop”) and cleans out the litter box.