Trial by Combat: In Defense of ‘GAME OF THRONES’

Game of Thrones returns tonight, more polarizing than ever. If you’re on the fence, here’s why you should stick with it.

When Season 5 premiered last year, it was met with enormous fan anticipation and heaping critical praise. Some griped that it was slow going after all the excitement that Season 4 provided, but by and large the show was considered to be at the top of its game. And then something very unexpected happened during the show’s sixth episode, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”: Sansa Stark was married to (and raped by) Ramsay Bolton, and the internet collectively lost its mind. Critics found themselves sheepishly defending a show they had proclaimed was at its best only a few weeks earlier, fans tweeted their outrage, and many claimed they would jump ship and never watch the show again (including a US senator).

They should have saved their exasperation, as the show would deliver another horrific gut punch with the burning of Shireen in “The Dance of Dragons.” Now heads really exploded as casual and rabid fans alike pounded on their keyboards in disgust. Not even the Mother of Dragons finally riding Drogon at episode’s end could assuage their righteous fury. But just one week previously, the bold and exhilarating “Hardhome” had the mob proclaiming “greatest episode of all time!”, seemingly over their newfound hatred.

Thus, Season 5 of Thrones is remembered as a series of thrilling highs and brutal lows; after the finale, which featured both Cersei’s controversial walk of shame and the heroic Jon Snow’s tragic (if temporary) end, most of the show’s audience felt burnt out and hollow. And who could blame them?

It’s amusing to note that the show’s most divisive season netted its biggest awards recognition, with it finally winning the Best Drama Series Emmy in a relatively weak field (the final season of Mad Men never stood a chance). Hell, even the much maligned “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” garnered a nomination for its director Jeremy Podeswa, though he would lose to fellow Thrones nominee David Nutter, whose “Mother’s Mercy” may end up being remembered as the series’ most consequential episode.

So what do we make of it all, now that the eagerly anticipated sixth season is upon us? Did Season Five really jump the direwolf? Are the showrunners wallowing too deeply in the misery of this world? Are they purposefully exploiting rape, sex, and violence for narrative convenience and audience titillation? Can viewers possibly be rewarded with an ending that isn’t awash with violent, grim devastation? Is this an experience worth our time, or should we abandon all hope of a satisfying conclusion?

Our own staff roundtable (which I unfortunately couldn’t participate in) didn’t provide many answers, but listed a whole lot of additional grievances. After a rewatch of all the seasons it has become clear to this viewer that Game of Thrones’s fifth season may have been challenging, but for better or worse it remains the exact same show it has always been. Whether you are willing to trust the writers and weather the storm is the real question.

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The truth is we have been here before. Remember the end of Season 3, when we were reeling from the emotional castration that was the “Red Wedding?” That single event launched a thousand thinkpieces (from non-book readers) about where the narrative could possibly go from there, and thousands of fans were so traumatized they vowed to never watch another episode. And yet they all came crawling back for more the next season, which ended up being a critical and ratings smash. The story continued, new characters were introduced whom we came to love (some all too briefly — RIP Oberyn), and more shocking twists sent the twittersphere into a frenzy.

Every year Game of Thrones only gains in popularity because as much as we like to be outraged by what we see, we love the game. This kind of storytelling is unique in that it doesn’t much care for or cater to audience expectation. Fan service is at the very bottom of the show’s priorities and as such its unpredictability screws with our delicate sensibilities. We’ve never seen anything like it on television and we’ve known that since poor Ned Stark lost his head way back in Season One. That single event was the hook the audience couldn’t escape. And ever since we have decried the show’s grim, cruel world where anyone can suffer and/or die all the while salivating over its rich drama, characters,  lore, magic, dragons, and diabolical twists.

It’s easy to see why Sansa’s wedding night became such a bone of contention for so many viewers. We have watched actress Sophie Turner grow up in front of our eyes, and have seen her character endure so much cruelty that her being ravaged by the abominable Ramsay Bolton was just too much to bear. Game of Thrones has come under scrutiny for its depictions of rape before (remember that infamous Jamie and Cersei scene?), but this was different because it felt personal, and dramatically unnecessary.

It is important to remember that depiction is not endorsement and in this unfair fantasy world women are expected to perform a specific obligation on their wedding night. The scene in question is not horrific because of what it shows, but what it implies; making Theon watch is another twist of the knife, but was seen by some as the show elevating his suffering to Sansa’s level. So while it would be easy to call the showrunners out for being sensationalists (and many have), that wouldn’t be fair to the story at hand, which came to depict Sansa taking her life into her own hands to save herself and Theon from the horrors of the Boltons. The scene did have consequences that were played out to the season’s end.

The burning of Shireen was stomach turning in its execution, but vital to the depiction of Stannis’s tragic demise — and, if we are being honest with ourselves, not entirely surprising. The show had been hinting towards her sacrifice since the start of Season 4. But when it happened, arguments were made that a line had absolutely been crossed, though it’s hard to imagine just where that line is considering this is a show that has burned children before (I don’t recall there being such an outcry for Arya’s poor farm boy, or the babies murdered in Season 2). It’s also a show that routinely depicts incest, torture, and countless other atrocities.

The reason why Shireen’s death (which, like Sansa’s scene, is depicted largely through reaction shots) was so horrifying was because we had come to care about her and the writers had made us believe that Stannis was a good man. But in Game of Thrones there is no good or bad, black or white. There are only shades of gray where good men do terrible things and bad ones do even worse.

When the end finally did come for Stannis, it was filled with melancholy as Brienne of Tarth towered over the man whom she had vowed to kill so many seasons ago. What should have felt like justice felt somehow like defeat because of the complexity of the performances and the assuredness of the writing. It’s a trick the show has employed before, most famously when Joffrey sputtered violently in the arms of his mother as he succumbed to the effects of poison. For one fleeting moment he wasn’t a monster, but a helpless young boy begging his mother for help as he died an agonizing death. That’s the kind of power Game of Thrones routinely displays even at its most testing.

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Season Five became a punching bag for moral crusaders, and the poorly handled Dornish arc, specifically, became a rallying point for those who wanted to prove its decline in quality. Dorne was in fact a rare misstep for Showrunners Benioff and Weiss, who tried to change and condense a complex subplot from the novels, but to condemn the entire season to what amounts to maybe 30 minutes of screentime seems more than a little shortsighted. With a story this expansive and with this many characters there are bound to disappointments, but the end of this thread gave us the poignant reunion between father and daughter… that ended in the most Game of Thrones fashion, with Myrcella dying in Jamie’s arms.

Whether that moment justifies visiting Dorne at all is up to you, but there’s no doubt the repercussions will come into prominent focus in the new season. The issue of “it wasn’t in the book” came up more than a few times during Season Five, as if that was a legitimate criticism. Benioff and Weiss have long let it be known that they are adapting an entire series for the screen and not separate novels. As long as the narrative stays true to their representation of the material, then it is par for the course. If you ask yourself if the characters as presented on the show would follow through on these actions and the answer is yes, then the writers are doing their job. And they do it damn well.

The thoughtful and methodical pace of Season Five was of a piece with what came before. During those early seasons we savored the big moments and were in awe of their impact. Season Four spoiled us with a narrative that wasted little time getting to the big set pieces — by the second episode a major villain had already been killed; by Episode 3 Dany had sacked another city in Slaver’s Bay; by Episode 6 Tyrion was on trial for his life, and by Episode 9 we finally got to see the “biggest fire the north has ever seen.” Season 4 had a hell of a lot of narrative momentum on its side and that was going to be almost impossible to live up to by the time Season Five rolled around.

But let us look closely at what we did get last year: the rise of the Sparrows, the imprisonment of the Tyrells, the mysteries of the Faceless Men, Arya’s revenge on Meryn Trant, the meeting of Tyrion and Daenerys, the slaughter at Hardhome, the demise of Stannis, the redemption of Theon, the dance of dragons, Cersei’s walk of shame, and Jon Snow’s murder by the hands of his own brothers. That’s a lot to digest in one season, and that’s just scratching the surface. When you think of all that, it’s easier to forget the disappointment of Dorne. Season Five moved the story forward in profound ways that will ripple outward in the seasons to come. For that very reason I would say Season Five easily ranks alongside Season 3 in its superior qualities. Not a popular opinion, but a truthful one.

So where does that leave us? As always, at the mercy of the writers. There are no more books to serve as guideposts for Beinoff and Weiss. They are forging into uncharted territory with only Martin’s notes on material he hasn’t even written to steer them through the darkness. What they have accomplished thus far has stretched the boundaries of television and made us viewers question the very nature of serialized storytelling. Game of Thrones is a landmark that has no equal. It’s legacy is already cemented, and those naysayers who have sworn off it are already glued to their screens secretly awaiting its glorious return for Season Six.

When Ramsay Bolton said “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention,” it was telling, but only to a point. Martin has said his ending will be bittersweet in the vein of The Lord of the Rings. It’s hopeful to imagine the Beinoff and Weiss version going in that direction, and delivering an epic final battle with dragons melting white walkers and the throne finally belonging to someone who deserves it. All of this suffering has to mean something, eventually, but whatever the case I’m in it for the long haul. This story deserves to be seen through, no matter the outcome. At long last winter is finally coming and none of us have a clue what it will entail. And isn’t that exciting?

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