game of thrones season five: the wars just keep coming

So … much … television. I mean seriously so … much … television. The A Song of Ice and Fire book series is regularly described as “longer than Lord of the Rings and the Bible put together” (which is one of those comparisons that mean a lot less than they seem to—the Lord of the Rings was a trilogy in the day but nowadays is published as a single volume, and holy books in general tend to be written in a way that packs a lot of information into a fairly small number of words) but so far I’ve watched fifty hours of the TV show which is … well let’s see. That’s long enough to watch all seven Harry Potter movies, all ten current Star Wars movies and still have time left over to get most of the way through the extended Lord of the Rings or just watch Casablanca four or five times. Like I tell myself I’m not wasting my life, but I’m believing myself less and less.

 And now we’re very much getting into the point where the pacing is beginning to … well … I don’t want to say drag, but it’s beginning to drag.

 The early series had a thematic and a narrative unity because most characters (apart from Dany) were fairly close to one another, and dealing with overlapping threats. There was also a sense of confidence that came because you were viewing the beginning and early middle of an epic story that you could trust would come together in suitably climactic fashion. The middle seasons were where the show started to overtake the books and where it started to become very apparent that there was still an awful lot left to tie up and increasingly little time to tie it up in. Because the thing is TV shows aren’t novels. A Song of Ice and Fire was famously pitched as a trilogy, the books to be entitled A Game of Thrones, A Dance with Dragons and The Winds of Winter. Now not only did the story initially intended for the first book wind up growing to three books (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, a Storm of Swords) one of which was so long that it then wound up being further split into two volumes for its UK paperback edition, but the follow up, A Dance with Dragons itself had to expand to two volumes (A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons) while the original final volume, The Winds of Winter is already slated to spill over into a new final volume A Dream of Spring. And the thing is you can do that kind of thing in books. Your characters, in a purely written medium, stay conveniently frozen in time while you’re not looking at them. But television is a very different animal. You have much bigger budgets to worry about, hundreds if not thousands of people with priorities and schedules to work around, and a real sense that your audience is going to move on angrily if you don’t wrap this up when you say you will. Also, actors age. A Song of Ice and Fire got bigger and more complicated than its creator ever expected (there’s a reasonable chance that it will take more than two volumes to get it finished) but that’s a very dealable-with problem in written fiction. It’s an insurmountable barrier in television.

 Martin has compared the process of writing the next A Song of Ice and Fire book to writing twelve novels all at once, each with their own arcs, plot beats and supporting cast. And that’s a pretty good description of what it feels like to read a good work of multi-viewpoint fantasy, it’s like you’re reading lots of books at once and one of the really useful things about that is that you can to some extent control your own pacing. If I’m reading an ASoIaF book and I don’t like Bran’s chapters or Arya’s chapters or Jaime’s chapters, I can skim them, or pay less attention to them. I can control my own experience in a way that I can’t in television. For example, there’s a website out there called, appropriately enough A Feast With Dragons that even presents a suggested reading order for the chapters in the fourth and fifth ASoIaF books (which split the viewpoints geographically rather than chronologically, so events in the books happen simultaneously but thousands of miles apart) for people who want to read them as one mega-novel. But you have to watch the show at the pace and in the order it was released, and so there are times when you find yourself just staring at the screen and thinking gosh, a lot of stuff is happening here and I am not especially invested in any of it.

 This gets especially bad in Season Five for the events in and around King’s Landing, because in retrospect (and maybe this will change in the light of the next couple of S8 episodes) they seem to come from nowhere and go nowhere. Suddenly a bunch of religious fundamentalists calling themselves the “Sparrows” show up and … okay, fair enough, quasi-medieval setting religion should be powerful. Although we kind of … haven’t seen it being up until now? I mean I literally cannot think of any character in the series up to this point who shows any signs of actually believing in the Faith of the Seven, or the Old Gods for that matter (the Starks seem to keep to their traditions out of a sense of, well, tradition, rather than out of any sense that there’s a particular supernatural mandate behind them). Cersei tries to turn the Sparrows against the Tyrells and it all gets out of hand and both Margaery Tyrell and Cersei spend most of seasons five and six locked in tiny grey cells being preached at by fantasy nuns. None of which is ultimately destined to go anywhere because it’s all going to go up in a puff of dragonfire.

 Although again, the really ironic thing here is how basically fine things seem to be in Westeros. I mean yes there are fanatical preachers running around the capital locking people up, but they seem to be pretty much exclusively targeting the aristocracy, and the Westerosi aristocracy more than have it coming. I seem to recall (okay, I seem to recall reading fairly recently on wikis because I read the actual books a loooong time ago) that Varys actually has to murder Pycelle and Kevan Lannister in the books precisely because they’re actually doing a reasonable job and Tommen is shaping up to be a reasonable king, and he needs chaos in order to implement his plan to install Ser Not-In-The-TV-Show of House Targaryen on the Iron Throne. I mean yes the Sparrows are dicks, but so are the nobility, and at least giving the church some teeth leads to a bit more separation of powers in Westeros. Tommen is probably the best king Westeros has had since Jaehaerys II.

 Pretty much every other plotline in S5 goes … kind of nowhere. Or at least goes somewhere very, very slowly.

 Arya arrives in Braavos and begins training at the House of Black and White, where the Faceless Men are. This is kind of where she’s been going since the end of season one and while it’s nice that her training is fairly extensive (it lasts all this season and most of the next, although she’s actually really bad at doing anything the Faceless Men want her to do) it’s also just kind of a montage spaced out through the whole series. Basically in S5E2 Arya starts training as a Faceless Man, and in S5E10 Arya is still kind of starting her training as a Faceless Man, and yes she’s learned some things but it’s all very … leisurely. Her first big test—which, it should be noted, she fails—is to take out an insurance broker while disguised as an oyster seller. This whole arc covers three full episodes, and she gets distracted at the end when she extra-curricular-murders Meryn Trant and gets blinded for her trouble.

 Then of course there’s the infamous Dorne plot. I didn’t hate this as much as I know some people do, but I do think that any arc that culminates in the line “you want a good girl but you need bad pussy” probably has … some issues? Jaime and Bronn go south, fight some people, get put in prison, bring back Myrcella and she dies of poison lipstick. Also, the Dornish fight with curved swords, which I couldn’t watch without having the Skyrim “Curved Swords” meme running through my head on a perpetual loop.

 I continued to love Brienne this season while also continuing to be very aware that her plot is contributing little or nothing. True, she rescues Sansa at the end, but … well actually I’m going to go off on one here so bear with me.

 The thing is, there are an awful lot of supporting characters in the show who are cool in a vacuum but don’t really contribute much to the overarching narrative. Very often, when I’m trying to work out how the story would have been different if a particular character was absent the point I keep coming back to is “ah, but there’s this scene where they save [character x], so if [character y] hadn’t been in the story, [character x] would be dead, so [character y] is actually really significant.” Except the problem with this is that the show includes quite a lot of scenes of physical peril, and despite its reputation it very rarely kills off major characters (for all the complaints about the low death count of S8E3, most of the significant characters have always had plot armour, it’s just more obvious as we get closer to the end of the show). So this means that saving the life of a major character isn’t really an important contribution to the plot. Sure, Brienne saves Sansa and Theon in S5, but Sansa and Theon were always going to survive that scene somehow, being rescued by Brienne doesn’t actually change their story. It’s not like the relationship between Brienne and Jaime, where they’re pretty much integral to each other’s character growth, it’s just a random intervention where there was always going to be some sort of intervention. The same is very much true of Ser Beric Dondarrion sacrificing himself to protect Arya in the final battle.

 Sansa’s arc in these seasons is actually really good. I mean I really wish she didn’t have to go through quite so much explicit physical and sexual abuse to get there, because the idea that women specifically need to be abused to get strong is a really problematic trope, but it’s nice to see at least one person taking a political route through the story rather than a swords and neck-stabbing route. And incidentally, in my reaction to S8E3 I didn’t quite get around to mentioning how glad I was that Sansa was in the crypts with the other noncombatants and that they didn’t feel the need to have her stab a wight to prove she was cool. From the vantage point of S8, it sort of feels like Sansa is the only character who’s remembered what show she’s in, and while everybody else seems to be running around having epic fantasy adventures fighting zombies, it’s nice to see that they’re still making room for somebody who’s good at talking but bad at fighting. I’d put Tyrion in that box as well, except for the tiny fact that he’s been pretty bad at talking for years now.

 On which subject: Tyrion. Oh Tyrion, we hardly knew thee. Now it’s been pointed out to me that he hasn’t actually done anything remotely clever since Blackwater, it’s really hard to respect him. Although I will say that his S6 arc (as ever, I’m a bit ahead on watching and a bit behind on writing) is less boneheaded than I remember. True he fails to negotiate peace in Meereen, but that’s not because his peace plan is bad, just because he’s doing something legitimately difficult. I think there’s a genuine problem with fiction (especially genre fiction) in which we so often use success as a signal of competence that we forget that it’s actually perfectly possible to be really good at a difficult job and still fail at it. This even spills over into real life—in a parallel universe the Maginot Line is a byword for skilled strategic planning, while the German attempt to invade France through the Ardennes has gone down as one of history’s greatest military blunders. Season five, though, is something of a transitional one for Tyrion. He arrives in Essos, spends all of ten seconds in Volantis (remember that setting up Volantis was one of the reasons they changed Jeyne Westerling into a cool healer lady) with Varys, then gets captured by Jorah Mormont, who gets greyscale passing through the ruins of Valyria, then they get captured by slavers. Then they wind up in the fighting pits … basically Tyrion ends up as one of Dany’s advisors and Jorah ends up going back into exile and that’s kind of … it.

 Dany, meanwhile, is still struggling to hang onto Meereen (at first with the help of Daario and her definitely-not-slaves-any-more, later with the added help of Tyrion) and again this is … fine. Governing is harder than winning and all that. Anyway her rule is being undermined by this group of terrorists called the Sons of the Harpy and … again, it’s fine it’s just … her entire thing up until this point has been going back to Westeros so she can fight for the Iron Throne. And while it is interesting in a way that she deliberately pauses in her ambitions to do something she thinks is good and right she … I mean … she’s not going to see it through. And it’s season five. Five. Out of eight. And we know that once she gets to Westeros the Meereen stuff will be largely forgotten (and I’ll be more than happy to eat my words on this if it turns out that Dany rejects the Iron Throne at the end of the series to go back to Essos where she belongs to finish that whole “ending slavery” thing she was so into, but I’m not holding out much hope in that regard). So it’s really hard not to see basically all of this as just killing time until she finally gets off her arse and decides to cross the Narrow Sea.

 The aspect of the plot where the most progress is made is the North. As well as Sansa and Theon’s fabulous-if-harrowing arc at Winterfell, we also get solid movement on the story of the White Walkers. Jon Snow mercy-kills Mance Rayder, gets appointed Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, strikes an alliance with the Wildlings, faces the Army of the Dead at Hardholme, discovers that Valyrian Steel can kill White Walkers and, oh yeah, gets straight-up murdered. Don’t worry, though, he’s only mostly dead. And I really should take a pause here to say how good the Hardholme stuff is. I mean yes, if we’re being technical it’s worth pointing out that for some reason killing the White Walker doesn’t kill all the Wights (although to be fair there’s more than one of them present, so that might have been taken into account), but the escalation of the AotD threat here is really well done. We’ve gone from having the occasional encounter with a wight or two, to Sam getting a lucky shot in on a Walker, to the whole army of the dead descending on Hardholme in a tide of bone and rotting flesh. It’s cool. It’s really cool.

 That being said, I’m not one of those who was feeling cheated that it all ended so abruptly. I do feel that the end of the White Walker plot felt rushed, but that’s mostly because the whole ending feels rushed, and I attribute that less to the showrunners being bad at their jobs (I’ve been falling down fandom rabbit holes almost a month now and it really bothers me how loudly people are willing to proclaim that this or that flaw with the series is “bad writing” or that the showrunners are “hacks”) than to the overwhelming complexity of the series just not being reducible to a reasonable amount of television. There is so much in the books, and even cutting huge amounts of it out for the TV show, there’s still just too much sheer overwhelming stuff to get everything down to a satisfying ending no matter how good at your job you are. And this is especially true when you’re adapting an existing and beloved property, because whatever you cut out or change there will always be somebody who hates it (I have honestly met people who think cutting Tom Bombadil from the Lord of the Rings movies was a shocking betrayal of the whole point of the novels)—and I am very aware that I say this as somebody who has complained at length about specific changes (although I like to think I did it with at least a modicum of self-awareness).

 Once again, there’s very little information about the actual food situation in this series. Which I continue to feel is a shame. Then again, pretty much everybody spends this season a prisoner in one way or another, so I suppose they can’t be paying too much attention to logistics. Even so: #showusthegrainsilos.

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One Response to game of thrones season five: the wars just keep coming

  1. Kamala says:

    I will admit that, especially as a child, I am a reader who skips almost all inset songs/poems in stories. I felt no loss for for the loss of Tom Bombadil. 🙂

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