It is a strange world we live in, where grimdark is now the norm for Hollywood cheesiness. You wouldn’t think a show where a little girl is burned alive and another serially raped could be cheesier than its source material, but somehow David Benioff & D.B. Weiss have managed just that. Despite its fantasy setting, A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t an escape from reality and the show has never been afraid to tackle the ugliness featured in George R.R. Martin’s books. Grimdark is defined by an absence of any emotion other than misery, but ASOIAF has never been like that. What I love about the series is despite its character deaths and dark subject matter, it shows the totality of the human experience: joy, love, despair, hope and sorrow, it’s all in there. On season 5? Unending misery.
My biggest criticism is of course the character assassination of Stannis Baratheon. From very early on Stannis was painted as a villain and for one simple reason: the Ds think you’re all idiots. The Ds are right that ASOIAF is a hard story to get into, but they think that gen audiences are so dumb that if they don’t make it as cheesy and simplistic as possible, everyone will get lost “We need a hero in a post-Ned Stark world!” the Ds cried. Thus Tyrion, a multi-faceted and not always likable character in the books (he turns a singer into stew and feeds him to commoners) is elevated to Hero of the Story. His opponent? Stannis. “Well Stannis kills his brother, so let’s make him really, really evil,” the Ds say. “Gen audiences are too dumb to appreciate a story where good and evil aren’t black and white!” So Stannis kills Renly and this is over and over brought up as The Reason Stannis is a Bad Guy. In the fifth season finale we’re meant to root for Brienne as she unsheathes Oathkeeper and declares “in the name of Renly Baratheon, the one true king, I sentence you to death.”
Here’s the thing: Renly was never the one true king. There are only two contenders who fit that bill: Stannis and Daenerys. If you believe the Targaryens are still the rightful rulers of Westeros, then root for Dany. If you think it’s the Baratheons, then it’s Stannis. Cersei’s children are bastards so by Medieval law the crown passes to Stannis. That’s what makes him such a compelling character. He’s completely unlikable but he’s right. The crown is his by rights.
This criticism cuts to the heart of the Ds’ failings: they don’t think like citizens of the Middle Ages, they think like 21st Century Americans. In their eyes it’s bad to kill your brother and sure, it is, but Renly was the real asshole by usurping Stannis in the first place. “You want a good girl, but you need a bad pussy,” was an actual line of dialogue written by these two assholes for an actual Medieval Fantasy TV Program. If that doesn’t tell you how modern-minded they are, I don’t know what will. They don’t understand the Middle Ages the way George does, and at first that was fine. But now they’ve strayed so far from the moral of the books that I don’t even know what they’re trying to say anymore. Evil always prevails, I guess?
So many of the world’s problems come from a black-and-white worldview. Americans are the “good guys” and Muslims the “bad guys.” Too often do we like to tell ourselves “I’m a good person” or “I could never do that” but that’s simply not how life works. As Paul Verhoeven once said, “war makes monsters of us all,” a sentiment that could very well be the mantra of A Song of Ice and Fire. ASOIAF is an intensely anti-war story and I think that’s why it resonates with me so much. The question isn’t “which of these contenders is the best candidate for the Iron Throne,” the question is, “should any of these people rule over Westeros?” Should any one individual be given total control over everyone else? Especially in book five, Martin maintains his story’s gray morality by questioning the worth of every potential king and queen. Excluding the obviously abhorrent Ironborn, a case could be made for every contender. Daenerys has the fierceness of the Dothraki and a gentle heart, but she’s also a fifteen year-old girl who has no idea what the fuck she’s doing. Stannis is just and follows the rule of law, but is unflinching and willing to use black magic to meet his ends. Tywin is brutal, but through fear he has maintained peace and prosperity.
On the show the question of “who should rule” is never asked because since Day One there has been only one answer: Daenerys. Only Daenerys, always Daenerys, all Daenerys all the time. Not only does this weaken the story overall, it weakens Dany too, and rumblings amongst both book and TV fans show her popularity is waning. When the story tells you who to root for instead of letting you decide for yourself, your brain subconsciously revolts. Dany is obnoxious now because the writers are constantly hammering over our heads how great she is, even when she’s summarily executing people by dragon and making stupid decisions. In the books you’re meant to question Dany, but on the show you, like every other character in her proximity, have no choice but to give her your undying love.
Season five submitted us to untold horrors with no catharsis. A Dance With Dragons has that catharsis. The Boltons may have taken the North and Stannis is unlikely to defeat them, but they aren’t going to prevail. A rebellion is brewing inside the walls of Winterfell, with all the other Northmen plotting against their new Wardens. In the show the only person who speaks up against the Boltons gets immediately skinned to death. Ramsay, an unhinged madman in the books, is somehow the greatest warrior and strategist the world has ever known, and prevails every time he is challenged. Iwan Rheon is a great actor, but Ramsay’s awfulness has become so over-the-top as to be comedic, and he’s lost all dramatic weight as a villain.
Stannis meanwhile rallies all the other Northern lords against the Boltons rather than riding into battle with a handful of sellswords. Sansa isn’t raped; hell, she’s still having a great time in the Vale as of Book Five. Jon isn’t just stabbed because he brings in Wildlings, he’s stabbed because he literally breaks his vows. He receives a letter from Ramsay telling him of Stannis’ defeat and rallies a force to fight the Boltons in the field, breaking his solemn oath. That’s why he’s stabbed, and not by some dumb fucking made-up boy character who telegraphed Jon’s fate throughout the season with his shitty acting.
Outside of Jon, none of the finale’s deaths (or Cersei’s walk of shame) had any impact because the writers have shocked us into numbness. Burning Shireen was the nail in the coffin: that was so unbelievably cruel and awful that every awful thing that comes after it will elicit nothing but “mehs” from the audience. It’s almost as if the Ds feel the need to up the shock factor every year just for the sake of it.
Look, it wasn’t all bad: “Hardhome” was the best episode the series has ever done and was a flawless piece of screenwriting. Its existence is actually a bit strange, as one wonders how the same guys who wrote that could write, “you want a good girl, but you need a bad pussy.” The Ds are completely scatterbrained, and the show has lost all consistency.
I will keep watching Game of Thrones and so will you. Despite my criticisms it is always full of great moments, awesome visuals and music, and the best acting on TV. But I don’t think the argument of “the show is better than the books” applies anymore. The books aren’t for everyone, but at least they make sense and they don’t make you want to slit your wrists. There are still people to root for, still characters to care about. I guess what it comes down to is: do you want a really dense fantasy story that’s super accurate when it comes to depicting a Medieval lifestyle, right down to the usage of archaic Old English words, or do you want a cheesy yet also traumatizing Hollywood fantasy soap opera?
If you choose the latter, just remember this: the Ds ain’t no Peter Jackson.