Editor’s note: This post contains spoilers for the Game of Thrones season 6 finale, so proceed at your own peril.
To George R.R. Martin’s credit, this story’s biggest strength is its author’s stated goal: to restore threat to narrative stakes. As he explained, nobody feels danger for Luke Skywalker when he meets Stormtroopers in Star Wars because A) he’s our protagonist and B) they’re simply not dangerous. As a result, Luke has “plot armor” that prevents our investment.
In Martin’s world, protagonists die with as much if not more regularity than villains, which accomplishes his storytelling goal so well it prevents investment for the opposite reason: if all my heroes are going to die in shitty, aggressive ways, I’m incentivized to maintain some emotional distance in order to spare my heart. At its worst, we push off involuntarily after an especially egregious loss (as happened in my case after reading the Red Wedding).
In the final two episodes of this season, we saw what one could call a conformity to television conventions, a capitulation, in harsh terms, to the techniques of commercial media and an abandonment of the story’s distinguishing narrative strategy. Our protagonists didn’t just win, but did so almost without stain — only the death of Rickon Stark, and I suppose Wun Wun, diminished the win at Winterfell (and, we have to be real about this, Rickon deserved that bolt).
These nearly-unequivocal victories felt less like Game of Thrones and more like typical Hollywood safety. But as the internet collectively noted, they were a fucking rush to watch. We felt what writers hope we feel with every climactic boom.
The difference is that Game of Thrones earned it.
What should have been formulaic was interesting because of the road there. Yes, the beats last night were predictable (we’ve been hearing all season about Chekhov’s Wildfire hidden away beneath King’s Landing), and some of the tension-building was transparent television artifice (Lancel crawling through that crypt toward teensy fuse-candles after being stabbed by a murderous child) — but after how much loss we’ve endured, after how much victory we’ve been pointedly (and effectively!) denied, these glory moments actually do their job rather than falling flat. The reason we decry cliches is because they underwhelm, and they do that because we see them coming. In Game of Thrones, where we’ve been taught to expect defeat, triumph became a surprise.
Furthermore, we still “lost” a lot last night in terms of our supposed protagonists, the characters and forces with whom our sympathies purportedly lie. The heroes of House Tyrell are dead; King Tommen, a benevolent child, killed himself in despair. But given all of this tragedy, how many of you felt a sense of triumph when Cersei assumed the throne? That shit was badass, facilitated by exceptional costuming and cinematography. I don’t want her to win, but her empowerment is exciting from a viewer’s perspective. She’s a Dark Queen now, and I fucking love those.
So yes, it’s true that Game of Thrones just “pivoted to the center,” but in the context of the work at large this technique hits home — and viewers have sophisticated reasons for enjoying it.
What did you think of the Game of Thrones season 6 finale? Let us know in the comments below.
Can Daenerys Targaryen get a sunburn?
James Pianka is a narrative game designer in Los Angeles.