Welp. It finally happened. We got a Game of Thrones episode that peeled the wool away from the eyes of fans and critics alike.
Okay, to be fair, there’s still plenty of ardent defenders. But it’s hard to ignore the sudden, rapid onslaught of criticism now being levied at showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, or a hard pivot to the position of, “Oh well, it’s enjoyable fodder; stop taking it so seriously.” Sometimes both!
“Characters aren’t so much pieces being moved on a board than the board is being moved under them, credulity be damned. In a show full of dragons and magic, it’s strange that the humans are starting to feel fake.
To the series’ credit, if you are going to paper over gulfs in logic, the best way to do it is with explosions, zombie bears and flaming swords. Every episode is a tantalising prospect as the story gallops towards a conclusion like a windmilling drunkard, and none have disappointed so far. The pace hasn’t let up all season. It’s physically impossible to dislike a programme this relentlessly, air-punchingly entertaining.
So it’s still the best show on TV, and I will have an inappropriately passionate argument with anyone who claims otherwise. It’s just a shame it’s also now one of the daftest.” —Luke Holland, Guardian
The latter stance is empirically frustrating. For years and years this show has been hailed as mature, and gritty, and intelligent—supposedly worthy of the scores of Emmys chucked in its direction for the writing and drama. Just ignore that “bad pussy” line…the rest of “Mother’s Mercy” was totally well-written with Stannis’s farcical defeat, Jon and Sam’s bro-tastic conversation about how great sex is, Varys wandering his ass into Meereen so Tyrion could complete his quest, and the tiny candle contrivance.
Look, call the show fun fodder with dragons, because that’s what it is (except when it’s horrifyingly racist and sexist and ableist and ageist and—). Heck, that’s what we were hoping to accomplish with our 101 course on why GoT is a bad show! But the immediate, overnight pivot from the same people who cited GoT’s super serious setting and incredibly weighty writing as a suitable defense of Sansa’s rape-for-revenge horror show is a bit much to swallow. The only sense of it I can make is that they’re in the process of grieving, and not yet willing to admit that they were taken for a ride by the amazing production value, (usually) stellar acting performances, and poorly-lit sets.
However the former stance is the one I find most curious. It’s the AV Club posting reviews where criticisms are no longer hidden in between a compliment sandwich of mental gymnastics. It’s seeing the headline “Game of Thrones has become a terrible show.” Yes, Lili, it has!
Now, if I had to pinpoint the moment where that happened…
Of course even looking back, cracks were in the plaster from the get-go—pretty much any time the showrunners saw fit to alter the source material. Turtle has spent a painstaking amount of time watching back through the episodes and making observations on her blog, and you can completely see how Benioff and Weiss’s championing of Robb (and subsequent sidelining of Cat) were warning signs of Daenerys’s current plotline being, “Oh, however will Tyrion control this wild woman (except when she’s wonderfully reasonable to accommodate Jon)?”
Continuing on this trip down memory lane, I’m of the firm opinion that each season became consistently worse in quality—more lazy, more laughable, more focused on spectacle over character. Season 3 was perfectly watchable, yet the stand-out moment was Littlefinger’s “chaos is a ladder” speech intercut with voyeuristic shots of Ros’s sexually graphic death and, in true subtle fashion, Jon and Ygritte climbing. Do you get it? Ladder. Let’s not get started on time-traveling Talisa’s pregnancy only serving the purpose of EXTRA EVHUL with her death.
Season 4 is where Benioff and Weiss made the conscious decision to prioritize delivering a Spectacular Spectacular! over anything plot or character-motivated, in the form of “Watchers on the Wall.” The result? Craster’s rape-shack subplot with a monologuing asshole drinking out of Jeor Mormont’s literal skull, and the delay of Jon into a leadership position within the Night’s Watch, therefore screwing him over moving into Season 5. Well, nodding-Olly may have taking care of that too.
It’s Season 5 where things became utter tripe…a fact that is now apparently obvious to reviewers who were lavishing praise onto the shaky-cam battle of cliches in “Hardhome” that officially ended any delusions Benioff and Weiss had an interest in telling George R.R. Martin’s story. Sure, Dorne got its rightful ripping, but as Julia and I have said on countless occasions: how was it markedly worse than anything else? How was it worse than Margaery’s perjury trap that no logical thinker could have planned for, or Cersei getting punished for having the audacity of trying to save her son from statutory rape? How was it worse than an entire plotline contrived around the idea that you can marry your enemies for revenge?
Frankly, you’re hard-pressed to find anything adhering to logic in all of Season 5. Arya’s story makes sense if you squint (and you’ll have to), but her character development is a trainwreck, and half of the “logic” comes from the fact that nothing was ever explained about the House of Black and White. They smack her with sticks for lying and telling the truth? And not respecting the value of currency? Sure, why not. And of course her floor-sweeping enabled her to learn how to apply masks off-screen. Just don’t ask when they slipped her the apparent hallucinogen for that final scene!
We had hope just after “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” aired that the critical attitude towards the show was shifting. It shouldn’t have taken something as horrible as the illogical rape of a main character to bring it about, but hey…at least it meant people were wising up, right? Until “Hardhome” came, and then everything was reset.
Season 6 was a much similiar experience. Again, it was a poorly written season full of contrivances. Just try to parse out how Cersei actually managed the logistics of blowing up the sept, why those logistics included a special death for Pycelle, and why the High Sparrow became magically stupid when she had already refused his summons in a previous episode, with Franken-Gregor murdering one of his stupid sparrows, to boot. Or consider “Battle of the Bastards,” where Jon insisted on fighting with the army they had—one that was not even a third the size of his enemy’s, who sat in a defensive stronghold—because there could have been a snowstorm, which apparently would have upset his army of Wildlings and Mormonts. Then he marched his face into a trap after Sansa warned him about that exact thing, and received a kingship once she bailed him out because Lyanna Mormont felt like suggesting it.
Weren’t those two things, you know…the main plots of the season? Or was it Tyrion magically turning around commerce in Meereen by persuading the red priests to preach about Daenerys, despite the fact that they already were?
True, there were some insightful critics who would say things like “‘Hold the Door’ was actually superior to ‘Battle of the Bastards.’” Well, yes, it wasn’t just a random 300-style battle where the stakes were utterly unearned. Instead, it was the episode where, upon learning that the Army of the Dead was at the literally doorstep of the cave, the Three Eyed Crow insisted on showing Bran the home video of young Hodor, I guess because he read the script and knew that Bran would need to create a meaningful time paradox. Is that how Max von Sydow became the Three Eyed Crow? Is that why Bran is now incapable of empathy towards his sisters? Is this what compelling writing looks like?
So I’m sitting here, utterly flummoxed at the reception to “Beyond the Wall.” I’m not upset by it, mind you. Sure, the about-face is frustrating, but frankly being fair: I did the same thing. It’s the point where the wool comes off and you are no longer able to suspend disbelief or give the show Watsonian consideration. I just happened to have had that experience much earlier.
But…why this episode? Why is this what did it? Yeah, it was bad, but it wasn’t especially or even uniquely bad. “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”, for example, didn’t just include the unnecessary and irresponsible rape of Sansa. It also was the episode where:
- Tyrion talks his way out of a slaver executing him by saying he has a large dick
- We learned that Cersei had no reason to summon Littlefinger to King’s Landing whatsoever
- Margaery is arrested for perjury through off-screen machinations that don’t follow a single scrap of logic, all on the basis of the word of a random sex worker/squire who knew what Loras’s thigh birthmarks looked like (uh yeah…he’s his squire)
- Arya gets hit a bunch with a stick for not admitting to caring about the Hound, but then tricks a sickly girl into drinking poisoned water, which earns her a promotion to being shown the Hall of Faces, only to not get a face to carry out her next mission
- Jaime and Bronn sneak into the Water Gardens behind a banana-toting-donkey and go for Myrcella just at the same time the Sand Snakes do (to kill her, and not Jaime who they know is in Dorne), and the worst fight scene in the history of television unfolds, all of which was watched by the Captain of Guards in broad daylight
Was it the teleportation? Because I see your sound-barrier-breaking raven and raise you the Sand Snakes magically appearing on Trystane’s boat when we SAW THEM waving goodbye to it from the docks. Was it the petty fighting between Sansa and Arya? To be honest, at least Sansa was making a strong case and finally pointing out the obvious about what she’s earned. But Game of Thrones has a long-documented history of catty women unable to rise above this childish behavior while formerly antagonist bros can chum it up. Was it because this is a post-Hardhome world, and the spectacle has lost some of its appeal? But then why was “Battle of the Bastards” lauded? Or “loot train attack” from “Spoils of War”? If the timeline was the problem, why were the issues of Jaime’s army sprinting around The Crownlands and the Reach in “The Queen’s Justice” excused? Or Jon and Sansa taking a bullet train around the North last year? Or Stannis being a mere twenty minute stroll from Winterfell after apparently needing to burn his only heir because getting there was such a challenge?
Was the problem the dialogue? It was bad, yes, but we’ve already been treated to this Emmy-winning banter with classic hits such as “I choose violence”, “Happy sh-tting”, and “You really are a greedy bitch, you know that?”. Was it the contrivance of the situation? Because Moat Cailin falling to the Vale Lords off-screen, and not a single scout alerting the Warden of the North seems up there. Or the fact that Sansa withheld information about that army existing. Or Lord Umber turning Rickon over to Ramsay because the guy’s kinslaying impressed him (dads are the worst!).
Was it the smaller things like the metalworking wights producing giant chains, or the fact that water that far north would not take nearly twenty-four hours to reform? Because this is the show where Ramsay and his twenty good men managed to infiltrate Stannis’s army of thousands, pinpoint his supplies using night-vision-goggles, and set those tents ablaze in an instant despite the freezing temperatures and wet canvas from snow.
And most crucial of all, when Benioff and Weiss have been pulling this nonsense for years…when their writing has reached the most fundamentally lazy levels of requiring us to believe that the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard would think to take on the city’s major religious institution without securing the King (or figuring out where any other kingsguard were, for that matter), or that the smallfolk wouldn’t give two craps when said institution blew up even though people like Hot Pie knew the culprit, or that a marriage to Sansa Stark would bring the Boltons to their knees rather than legitimizing their claims, or that Arya could parkour around Braavos with her guts hanging out and then teleport across the globe to murder two people off-screen and bake them into pies after apparently taking over a kitchen, or that Tyrion would be freed from slavery by some random guy who head-nodded at him, or that Mace so desperately needed to go to Braavos and sing away their debts and no shut up this had nothing to do with getting Trant in the same city as Arya… When *this* has been what’s received Emmys and praise and unparalleled hype, does the mission to capture a wight really stand out?
“Beyond the Wall” was a bad episode of television. Laughably bad. It’s also exactly the same as the show you watched for years now. I might not understand it, but at least we can all lean into the mirth together now.