Spoilers for Game of Thrones (television series) and A Song of Ice and Fire (book series).
When the eighth season of Game of Thrones was about to start, in preparation for the new season, I watched every episode again, starting at the beginning. I had to watch one or two every evening in order to fit them in, but it confirmed something that I had suspected and heard said for a while: the show’s quality had gone downhill.
I would struggle to say precisely where the rot set in and when I spoke to friends and family it became clear that, although most agreed that the quality had dropped, few could agree why. Most blamed specific characters and, by extension, the actors and actresses, but I think this is unfair: what some saw as wooden acting struck me as poor direction, although I could be mistaken; what others saw as stupid in-character decisions struck me as poorly-justified contrivances to allow for certain “plot twists” further down the line. This second point was what made me realize that, for me, at least, the problem was one of writing: plot, pacing, and dialogue had all collided in a terrible snarl.
Adapting a book to a different medium is hard, and there were inevitably going to be disappointments, but generally speaking, the strong characterization of the GoT cast helped deal with many of those problems in the earlier seasons, even if Littlefinger and Varys (probably my two favourite characters) inexplicably spent an awful lot of time posturing and revealing their treason in places where, at any moment, someone could have walked in and overheard.
Dialogue is not realistic in GoT but it is compelling, quotable, and often takes place in a highly semiotic context: Ned’s first scene, if a bit heavy in terms of expository speech, establishes him as a man with an unshakeable sense of duty, as he passes the sentence on a defector from the Night’s Watch, and also carries out the execution by beheading. In Ned’s last scene, Joffrey sentences him to death for petty reasons and has another carry out the execution by beheading. The writing exists to serve the telling of a story in which the reader is invested and can draw out themes from the subtext.
Stories exist in a realm that is like ours but clearly different from it. Stories compel our attention in different ways. The 20th Century German playwright Bertolt Brecht believed that an audience should be kept emotionally distant from characters on stage, and instead reflect upon the action and themselves critically, as an interrogation of the reality which we take for granted. The media with which we are generally familiar, however, do not generally want distance but a degree of investment. We might identify with characters or their motives, we might want to see how a story ends, or we might simply enjoy how it is told (more about these another time). Even cynical money-making exercises like the films of a certain explosion-enthusiast, or the nth iteration of a given football simulator or FPS hope to titillate or excite us because otherwise we will not part with our money.
My basic theory of story-telling is this: story-telling is an art, and the core of any work of art is an attempt to communicate something. What most people want from a story, regardless of medium, is something which helps us to suspend our sense of disbelief and which draws us into the world of the story. This is accomplished through a variety of techniques. In the GoT television series, acting plays a large part. What we see of a character in film and television is a product of writing, acting (from the actor) and direction (from, would you believe it, the director). Bad direction can scupper even the best actor. Littlefinger’s final scene in Season 7 is an excellent example of this: Aidan Gillen’s acting is superb, but the awful contrivance of the entire scene still makes it painful to watch. Turner, Williams and Wright also give wooden performances, further undermining the story-telling, although I remain convinced that this is a problem with writing and direction because they have all proved by this point that they can act.
The scene’s principal sin is not that it is a bad scene (although it is), but that it detracts from the experience as a whole. Writing fiction is an exercise in smoke and mirrors, one in which the audience wants to be deceived, to be drawn into the illusion. Occasionally we like to peek behind the veil, and sometimes we even like it when fourth wall tropes are played with, if done cleverly, but we do not like the actors to forget their lines, trip on the scenery, or generally ruin a sense of immersion.
The later episodes of GoT are populated by easily avoided mistakes like these. In an earlier season, we might have had an exchange like this:
Tyrion: How many men do they have?
Varys: I couldn’t say. My little birds sing no songs on the Dothraki Sea.
Tyrion: How many men do they have?
Kevan: I wish I knew. They’ve killed every scout they haven’t captured.
These are poor imitations of Martin’s writing, but they allow the reader a glimpse of character: Varys implies, but does not actually say, that he doesn’t know because he has no spies abroad, whilst Kevan shows his frustration with his foe’s ruthless success.
In the later seasons, we instead see exchanges like this:
Tyrion: How many men do they have?
Jorah: We don’t have access to that kind of information.
Now, I’m not asking for a medieval fantasy to reproduce an Anglo-Saxon world of thee, thy and thou (and most that try to without irony are excruciating), but Jorah’s semi-fictitious line given above is so blatantly a product of 21st Century jargon that it falls flat on its boring face and drags all the surrounding dialogue down with it. It would have been less painful, perhaps even believable, if he had just said, ‘We don’t know’. It is not even the case that the line itself was especially bad English, but it completely ruins the tone established by the story.
Similarly, Ed Sheeran’s cameo was fundamentally an error of tone. Had we had him in character as a farmer’s son singing a folk song or a lutenist wooing us with his dulcet tones, it would have been fine, but no matter how good a singer he might be, the style of a modern pop ballad does not transition well to Westeros. Even the show’s interpretations of The Rains of Castermere and The Bear and the Maiden Fair were pushing it. This is extraordinarily silly because there is a long tradition of English folk song covering a range of themes from the joyful to the lugubrious to the smutty, and it would not have been hard to compose a pastiche of one, or even outright copy them. Had Sheeran sung The Three Ravens from Ravenscroft’s collection, Lord Randall, or Dowland’s exquisite Flow, my tears, I am sure he would have avoided the backlash for his cameo which, apart from the music and the contingent dramatic mismanagement, was largely inoffensive. Flow, my tears would actually have worked well to create a pastiche for The Rains of Castermere, whilst we are at it, and The Bear and the Maiden Fair as it appeared outside the credits was fine, but with smut like Will you buy a fine dog? easily available for inspiration, it seems a missed opportunity. In media which cater to more than one sense, the tone of each must be established, which is why the soundtrack for the opening sequence of The Winds of Winter did absolutely nothing for me (and most musicians I know, come to think of it) in context. It was strikingly eerie but completely at odds with all the other musical forces used both within and without the story.
This is the lesson to learn from these mistakes: once the tone is established, not only for the story as a whole but also the tone specific to each character, concept, or whatever, do not deviate from that tone.* The story-teller’s art depends upon smoke and mirrors, and nothing imperils them like a change in tone, and this is not specific to GoT; think of the criticisms levied at The Simpsons or Battlestar Galactica (2004); The Hobbit in contrast to The Lord of the Rings; the highs and lows in the Dawn of War and Command and Conquer franchises; your favourite table-top game when run by a “good” GM versus a “bad” one. How much of the problem is a dissonance of tone, whether in dialogue, narrative, or theme? Quite a lot, I suspect. An audience will ignore or even fail to notice smaller flaws as long as the tone is consistent, but will begin to see a whole host of sins, real or imagined, as soon as the illusion is broken.
*Unless it is a plot point because a character has been secretly replaced or fundamentally changed of course.