Friend-Zone TV

Game of Thrones isn’t very good anymore. But here’s why we still stick by it.

Emilia Clarke in "Game of Thrones".
Dany doesn’t need to woo us anymore.  

Helen Sloan/HBO

Watching a television show with any regularity bears a resemblance to being friends with it. You start seeing a new show, hit it off and one thing leads to another. You become pals. The show makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it distracts you, it engages you, it makes you think, it passes the time. As with a friend, unless things have gone seriously wrong, you are not constantly re-evaluating the relationship. You’re buddies, there’s history, time spent, sensibilities shared. You take the bad with the good. When he drives you a little crazy, you don’t stop talking to him, you do what any decent person would do: You tweet nasty things about him to your other friends.

There is no show on television more entangled with this friendship effect than HBO’s Game of Thrones, which is entrenched in the friend zone. After six seasons, thousands of pages of plot, endless violence, hundreds of zombies, scores of bared bosoms, dozens of reversals of fortune, acres of mud, multiple gods, and three dragons, we know Game of Thrones intimately. We’re way past first impressions. It doesn’t have to win us over each week, and it doesn’t try. Big-picture questions about its quality have been overshadowed by more specific inquiries. Does Dany know anything about ruling, as opposed to conquering? What is the Lannisters’ current financial status? Could a feudal system really exist for thousands of years? Can power only corrupt? Can violence only lead to more violence? Is “Can you please hodor” an acceptable thing to say to a stranger whom you wish would hold the door? Who is going to die next?

Game of Thrones is at least a deep enough text to inspire all of these questions, which speaks well of it—unless it speaks better of us, the audience. Episodes can feel more like essay prompts than compelling television: Can viewers make meaning of it? The answer is always yes. Critics and tweeters and Redditors and commenters analyze every moment, using Game of Thrones as an occasion to think about such grand themes as violence, misogyny, parenthood, loyalty, religion, and resurrection, to say nothing of structure and pacing and plotting, and we do this no matter if Game of Thrones handles these issues smoothly or clunkily. It is as if the Talmud were being written about an … inconsistent television show based on a series of vast, impressive, inconsistent novels.

Game of Thrones is rich in characters, rich in ideas, rich in details. It is also rich in needless torture, dull travel arrangements, and front-runners for the Iron Throne who have trouble making multiple facial expressions. And even as I type this, I can feel how petty these quibbles sound, how trifling compared with the grandiosity of the series, its sprawling, churning plot, and the energy expended by it and on it. Yes, Game of Thrones is not made to be watched one episode at a time. Yes, every season contains multiple episodes that feel like filler. Yes, certain themes and characterizations—decency cannot survive; Ramsay Bolton is the worst—will be duly repeated. No one is perfect.

And yet this season, Game of Thrones’ imperfections continue to grow. The series has finally surpassed the plot of the books, and the long-simmering stylistic tension between George R. R. Martin and D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, Game of Thrones’ showrunners, has boiled over into the show itself. Martin seems to want the story to go on forever. Originally imagined as a trilogy, A Song of Ice and Fire will be seven books long. Each of those books is longer than the last and takes longer to arrive. Resolution is at odds with the novels’ central themes: that chaos is more natural than progress, that violence is unavoidable, that happy endings are an illusion because history never stops. The only fitting ending for A Song of Ice and Fire is a Sopranos’ style hard cut, on bedlam. Weiss and Benioff want the series to be over. They have suggested that the entire series can be wrapped up in 13 more episodes—but the whole lot of nothing that has been the last three episodes suggests they could end it even sooner. The books continue to spiral outward with no sign of contracting, just as the TV show, finally given its head, should be free to race to its conclusion.

While many viewers have not read the Martin novels upon which the series is based, these books have operated as a kind of safety valve for the show. They are essential to the series, having given its plot, its themes, its depth of detail, even its “sophisticated” television tendency to use an audiences’ expectations for heroes and happy endings against them—i.e. to kill major characters. The show has, in turn, been a kind of extra-textual editor to the books, excising and combining characters, eliding some details, accentuating others. (Usually, but not always for the better: It was the show, and not the books, that made the tedious decision to show all the Ramsay-Theon torture scenes, as well as inventing Ramsay’s rape of Sansa.) Whatever judicious changes the show has made, the books have operated as an excuse for a certain amount of narrative bagginess. Why is Dany still so far away from Westeros? Because she is in the novels.

This season, free of the books’ details, if not its arc, Game of Thrones has delivered dozens of small-scale resolutions. We left Dorne. Arya finally resolved to leave Braavos. We learned the origin of the White Walkers. Two of the long-separated Stark children, Jon and Sansa, were finally reunited and joined by Brienne, before they swiftly set about taking back their home, Winterfell. Bran Stark all but confirmed the worst-kept paternity secret in Westeros, became the three-eyed raven before we even had time to learn who the old three-eyed raven was, and reunited with his presumed dead uncle Benjen. Theon found the resolve to betray Ramsay, didn’t betray his sister, and, thanks to a pep talk at a bar, got his mojo back. Dany rallied another army and actually directed this one toward Westeros, not Slaver’s Bay.

Yet just as the show is trying to get its momentum going, to wrap up loose ends, it has to contend with Martin’s counterimpulse for breadth. Like a car speeding down a highway peppered with red lights, forward progress keeps being interrupted, by new and reintroduced characters, dropped into the series’ already overstuffed fourth act. The winning Lyanna Mormont, the pint-size ruler of Bear Island, and Ian McShane’s hippie peacenik Brother Ray had welcome, brief cameos. The Brotherhood Without Banners seem like suitably crass company for the Hound. But far longer and less welcome is whatever is happening on the Iron Islands, the anticlimatic events involving the Freys, Tullys, and Lannisters at Riverrun, and the cul de sac that was Arya’s time in Braavos. This season, and particularly in the last three, plodding episodes, the overly detailed and convoluted plot—a nod to books that don’t exist yet—is dragging the show around by its tail. If Benioff and Weiss were free to make decisions solely for compelling dramatic reasons, it’s hard to imagine a rhythm quite so flaccid.

The conflict between speed and scenery, between winnowing and widening, between gratification and verisimilitude, between the preferences of Benioff and Weiss and those of Martin is the kind of debate one could imagine playing out in Game of Thrones itself: a fiction, to steal a line from another fiction, that is about “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” Can showrunners and authors, the gods and kings of this particular universe, deliver to us the conclusions that we crave, or should they strive to teach us that, in the long view, there is no such thing as a truly satisfying story, let alone resolution? Martin may have a more ambitious agenda than the series, but I am relieved that, though the long-promised winter may never arrive, an ending is coming.