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On Game Of Thrones, The Stakes Are So High They're Low

This show has broken me.

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I try not to be the guy that traffics purely in hot takes, but I’ve never much liked Game of Thrones. That hasn’t stopped me from consuming it at an alarming pace. One time I had a soccer game get rained out so I stayed indoors and watched eight episodes. Yet I’d insist to anyone who would listen that it’s not good television. I wanted to like it, but couldn’t quite explain why it left me unfulfilled. This year, it’s easier than ever to be a hater, and my complaints basically amount to this: Game of Thrones has taken the sting out of death.

Since it first aired, Thrones has thrived off its willingness to “kill your darlings,” smiting every character you ever liked and a few you didn’t. The old saw when I talk about things like this with fans of the show is “Yeah, that’s the point!” Thrones apologists, both of the books and of the show, have told me for years that this flaw is intentional. The essence of George R.R. Martin’s writing, they say, is an environment where no one is safe, where you don’t have that “Surely they won’t kill him/her/them” certainty reserved mainly for stories with a conventional number of protagonists, and/or a yellow-bellied storyteller.

That’s fine. Mission accomplished, sort of. But it’s officially been, well, done to death. My capacity to care about the characters is fading by the day. I didn’t get attached to Smartass Viper Oberyn Martell for a second, because I don’t like to back the losing team, and anyone who was paying attention knows that the second you start liking a character AT ALL, that means their days are numbered. This holds up for everyone from Robb Stark to Hodor. Tyrion is still hanging in there somehow, but he isn’t really doing anything interesting these days and I still wouldn’t rule out a random dragon-mauling come next finale.

It’s fine to test your audience with an unsafe universe. But a show without characters you can root for is almost no show at all. I don’t even care if Dani gets her throne anymore. Tyrion’s quips have lost their bite and my eyes roll back into my head every time Varys opens his mouth. Is Cersei getting ready for another giant wildfire bender? Let her. Allow me to borrow a line from Davos in the upcoming season’s trailer: “It won’t matter whose skeleton sits on the iron throne.”

The minds in charge of Thrones raised the stakes so high that they’ve lowered them. Surprising deaths are no longer surprising, and a once-fascinating and unpredictable universe has been ruined by machismo and indiscriminate mayhem. I don’t care if it’s The Point – what it is is bad television. Every time I feel slight affection towards a character I’m suddenly reminded that this is the TV equivalent of an abusive family: Don’t befriend the puppy, because that thing’s going down. Characters leave as quickly as they came, and instead of creating shock, it creates dissatisfaction.

Last season, while Arya was crossing names off her hit list, Cersei torched the Sept of Baelor and everyone in it. Tommen watched it happen and decided he’d had enough, so he jumped out the window. You could argue that, with the last of Cersei’s kids dying, she now has nothing left to lose and that makes her more dangerous, ergo more interesting. I just don’t see how that’s possible anymore. There’s nowhere left to go, all nuance has gone out the window. I doubt I’ll be able to tell post-bereavement Cersei from the one that sent assassins after Bran. It’s all the same to me. For seasons now, who dies, when they die, and how painfully they die has been the only dramatic shoe Thrones knows how to drop.

Breaking Bad could fit more drama into a housefly than Thrones managed to put into blowing up an entire sept. Whether it aspires to such heights or not, Thrones is talked about in the same sentence as some of the best shows of the century, The Wire and Breaking Bad and a couple others that had the patience to develop evil characters instead of rushing to make them transparently awful. Thrones is watchable, if only for the spectacle, but that’s not enough when folks are throwing around “Best Drama Series” Emmys.

One thing that certainly doesn’t help is the bizarre idea that people can come BACK from being dead. (That’s a dangerous precedent to set, Melisandre.) The point of killing important characters in fiction is that death is the ultimate consequence. It’s sort of the bridge between fiction and reality – fictional characters are as mortal as we are. But in a universe populated with folks that have the lifespan of goldfish, and/or can be magicked back into existence once the shock of the finale has worn off, that effect is totally cheapened. It’s a potentially potent method of storytelling that has been diluted to the point of irrelevance.

None of this should come as a surprise. The showrunners behind Thrones have proved themselves time and time again to be every bit as quick-trigger and undisciplined as George R.R. Martin himself. These are the guys that lifted a perfectly consensual sex scene between Jaime and Cersei in the books (incestuous, but consensual) and decided what it really needed was rape. They decided the Red Wedding wasn’t red enough, and the solution was for Robb’s pregnant wife to take a dagger to the uterus (she wasn’t even there in the books). The meaninglessness of death in their show’s universe feels like a logical side-effect.

The next season of Thrones premieres in July. Personally, I’m much more excited for the return of Ballers. Maybe Thrones did something for me emotionally way way back. I can’t remember. This show has dulled my nerve endings.

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