Vengeance, violence, and why I lost faith in Game of Thrones

There's nothing more devastating than the downfall of your favourite show... (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)


The last three seasons of Game of Thrones have been awful. Don’t even try to deny it.

Its first few seasons were tightly plotted and well-written. With Season Five, however, its quality went into freefall, hurtling passed mediocrity into the depths of outright badness. While the staggering production values, incredible score and wonderful actors haven’t gone anywhere, the show has betrayed the themes of the books on which it is based and, in so utterly misrepresenting them, has become deeply unpleasant to watch.

Its use of violence provides the clearest example of this incomprehension: in its earlier seasons, massacres and killings, whilst common, were integrated seamlessly into the wider storytelling; they were a means, not an end. However, it often seems that the creators have attributed the programme’s success to its willingness to shock and horrify. And so, a once-thoughtful programme has now descended into an ever-escalating sequence of spectacularly insubstantial set-pieces, an extravaganza of gore without meaning, sound and fury signifying nothing. It’s a bloodthirsty game of one-upmanship, with each murderous twist trying to outdo the last, storytelling be damned.

The aftermath of the Season Six finale is emblematic of this subordination of storytelling to pretty pyrotechnics: when the leadership of the Faith Militant, a movement buoyed by an outpouring of popular resentment for the ruling elite, are massacred, you might expect some long-term repercussions or a period of uncertainty about the new balance of power. In Game of Thrones, however, they are important only as a vehicle for violence, an expedient to get some pretty fireworks on the screen. They are destroyed and forgotten, the show striding over their bodies as if they were nothing, hurrying on to the next big thing.

This casual deployment of violence stunts the growth of key characters and undermines the moral framework by which we’re encouraged to understand the world. When Arya kills people in the books, it’s meant to be profoundly disturbing. She’s a child, traumatised by the brutality that has deprived her of a family and a childhood. The show, however, frames her vengeance against the Freys as a moment of triumph and justice.

It’s precisely this simplistic view of vengeance and violence that the books try to problematise. The epilogue of A Storm of Swords, for instance, grants readers the vengeance for which they have been longing while subverting their expectations. When Lady Stoneheart begins executing Freys for their part in the Red Wedding, Martin presents her as cruel, as pitiless, as wrong. As a reader, your vengeful wishes are fulfilled, but they turn to ash in your mouth. The show, which contorts its storytelling in order to be as shocking as possible, could never hope to achieve such a potent subversion of its fans’ expectations.

This unthinking recourse to violence means that human life becomes expendable, each character just another hunk of meat to be chucked onto the flames of spectacle. No act of violence is part of some wider thematic argument and, therefore, no act of violence really matters. It’s just there. Killing. Death. Bloodshed. All because it’s kind of fun to look at, I guess.

Watching Game of Thrones now is an utterly disheartening experience: untethered from thematic coherence, detached from consistent narrative logic, it’s impossible to appreciate it as anything more than a pretty show with a big budget. It’s glib and mean-spirited, using death and violence to cauterise plotlines in which it has lost interest, never reflecting on quite what it’s saying about the acts it depicts.

I guess I’ll just keep waiting for The Winds of Winter. It’ll be out any day now, I’m sure.



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