I’ve had mixed feelings about HBO’s takeover of creative control of Game of Thrones since the beginning of season 6. On the one hand, Martin is in most respects a mediocre fantasy writer and the show is generally much better than the books. He writes great characters, but he falls prey to the classic middle-books fantasy trap of burning through plot too fast and then loading up on filler (too many new, uninteresting characters, hundreds of pages of people being on the way to places). I’m also not a big fan of ultra-gritty fantasy, with constant talk of hard cocks and so on. I’ll take Robin Hobb and Brandon Sanderson over Martin any day of the week.
But on the other hand, the special appeal of HBO’s Game of Thrones does depend to a large extent on Martin’s influence– in particular, his constant subversion of narrative expectations. Killing main characters, people on a revenge quest being killed before they achieve revenge, villains falling to other villains rather than to heroes, etc. That’s what makes Game of Thrones what it Is. The show has a unique ability to make you feel truly terrible, and that’s 90% of its appeal.
I really did not like season 6 very much. It was too crowd pleasing, too readily satisfying. It was like they finally were off Martin’s leash and the first thing they did was distance themselves from everything that made the show distinct. I hated, hated, hated the way they brought back Jon Snow. It was like “oh you thought your favorite character was dead, PSYCHE! He’s fine!” It didn’t even make sense. All of a sudden Davos, whose primary character traits are an excess of caution and an abiding distrust of black magic, and who barely knows Jon Snow, is all gung ho in favor of using black magic to bring him back. I’m not necessarily against the idea of bringing him back– indeed I’m sure Martin planned something along those lines– but a cardinal rule of fantasy and horror fiction is that if someone is brought back from the dead via black magic they are never the same. They carry the taint of death with them in some way. In the HBO version, it’s like he’s immediately back to his old self, no harm done. The only point I see of him having died in the first place is that his resurrection feeds into some kind of chosen one narrative relating to the Lord of Light. But c’mon, TAINT OF DEATH, PLEASE.
This week, however, Game of Thrones became Game of Thrones again. That devastating sea battle, beautifully timed to interrupt a kiss between fan favorites and disappoint the shit out of everyone chomping at the bit for some steamy action, was a true Game of Thrones turn. And then Theon’s moment of cowardice, after all the work the show has done to rebuild respect for the character, was brilliant. The action film-making was on par with the best battle sequences we’ve seen from the show. I also really appreciated the body horror in the earlier Samwell/Jorah scene. Welcome back, Thrones.
From the first book of the series (which I read well before the show was produced), it’s clear that the ultimate conflict will be between the old magics of fire and ice. The dragons vs. the white walkers. The series is predicated on a structural irony, where the Shakespearean machinations within Westeros are the narrative focus but we are constantly reminded that they are quite insignificant in the scope of the larger conflict that is slowly closing its jaws around the Seven Kingdoms. The failing of the books is that Martin exhausted the interest of the machinations well before he was prepared to drop the hammer. The series did not fall into this trap. It elided all that boring crap. Now there’s a question of whether it can execute the finale without Martin’s source material. This week is the first time I’ve felt optimistic about the prospect.