Game of Thrones was once praised for its deep and meaningful dialogue, heralded as a beacon of character depth and development, and regarded as the rare fusion between spectacle and brilliant writing. Now, in its 8th season, it has none of these things. Yet, it is bigger than ever. How, and when exactly did Game of Thrones lose its way?
1. Weightless Dialogue
Conversations between characters were pivotal to the show’s integrity, personality and to the narrative’s progression. Rare indeed are shows and films that immerse you absolutely in the simple act of characters talking to each other, every word and phrase being embedded with importance, rich with meaning and character intent. Complex personalities clashed ideologically and complemented each other to bring us deep conversations and unforgettable quotes. All we have now are witty one-liners and weightless exchange of words between characters that have experienced worlds of events and have been far away from one another for seasons and years, yet fail religiously to express any resemblance of psychological change. As for witty one-liners, the show’s earliest moments still also reign in that regard.
How could one forget the intellectual battles between Littlefinger and Varys, distilling the whole conflict of the series in their packed dialogues, filled with greater meaning and consequence. Tyrion, too, was a brilliant mind to be reckoned with, with many of his lines being some of the most memorable and poignant. This great little man, faced early on and throughout several seasons with members of his family, particularly Tywin and Cersei, conveying through their conversations the magnitude of their family’s dysfunction, distrust, immorality and emotional brutality. In rarer moments, one could also witness ominous and eerie conversations, particularly when dealing with the supernatural side of the fictional universe. In the show’s primordial days, the supernatural was as real as it is now, but every otherworldly act had an irreparable impact on the story and characters, easily observed through their reactions and conversations. On the other hand, by the time of season 6, Jon Snow came back to life after being stabbed to death by his men, and the only comment uttered was by Tormund, regarding Jon’s “little pecker” and the fact that a God could never have one so small, so he was nothing but a mortal man, albeit resurrected. A genuinely funny moment, but gravely insufficient.
One could speculate that this discrepancy, and all the others that follow, are due to the lack of source material beyond season 5, and the departure of George R. R. Martin from the writing team around the same time. Indeed, these are important events that could’ve contributed immensely to the drop in overall quality, however, without being present in the writer’s room and in the meanders of the show’s production, it is hard to gauge the real impact of these events.
2. The Death of Character Development
One of the show’s greatest strengths was its ability to develop deeply and broadly its characters, forcing them to grow beyond their initial points in impressive ways, although never linearly, and not in just one direction. Each character moved along across the seasons, facing obstacles, revealing deeper intentions, admitting hard truths, and learning valuable lessons, but sometimes they also lost themselves. Theon Greyjoy is a shining example of this progression. In the beginning he was a brat and a prick, but with a good heart. Then, he proceeded to re-encounter his blood family, only to enter a journey of self destruction, physical mutilation, and psychological torture as a consequence for his betrayal of the Starks. Seemingly lost, his story could’ve ended with a death that put an end to his torment, and served him justice for his mistakes. Instead, he overcame his abuse, regaining a portion of his personality, but the damage was carved profoundly into his psyche. He was still a coward, and his narrative was only complete when was able to be brave in the name of something other than himself. A complex, well-written progression that survived until season 8. One of the rare exceptions.
By contrast, one can look at Tyrion, a character of brilliance, wit, emotional trauma, but decisive nature. By the end of season 4 he hit his lowest point, having to murder the woman he loved after having betrayed him in more than one way, and his own father, who always mistreated and reviled him. As of season 8, nothing really has changed in Tyrion beyond scenery and circumstance. Clearly, there was an emotional toll for the crimes he committed, but there never was any attempt to develop this trauma, and similarly there was no atonement nor there was any resolution to the conflict inside him. He just kept drinking, saying forgettable one-liners, and being incompetent. Shae was the “funny whore”, and like-so Tyrion has become the “funny dwarf”. There really is nothing more to his character at this time, and what is to come surely does not seem promising.
This is a prevalent problem in almost all characters in the show, and even those that managed to have some minor evolution, did so in ways that put into question the validity of said progression, by getting there through poorly-written, sometimes outright ridiculous plot decisions.
3. Spectacle over Content
There was always spectacle and action in Game of Thrones. It was earned, and weaved into the narrative to signify more than explosions, battles, and death. This is what made it so fantastic, and so unique, because so many shows and movies in the fantasy genre fall into the trap of regurgitating action sequences that feel nothing but ridiculous because they hold no deeper weight behind them. Without well-written characters, solid plot points and heavy consequences showcased through dialogue, we can’t forget that dragons aren’t real and nothing more than a fake CGI-festival.
During the Battle of the Blackwater in season 2 and the Battle of Castle Black in season 4, the stakes were as high as possible, even if they only represented an existential threat to a few relevant characters. The events that preceded them were layered with anticipation and conflict that transcended the battles themselves. They were ideological struggles, and every piece that had to be put in place for them to happen and to be justified, was done with precision and perfection. Now, we have the greatest war Westeros has ever seen, and it can be understood if you don’t truly care what happens.
It all went wrong when the pieces that had to be put in place for this war to be possible involved ridiculous plans, irrational decisions and plot-holes larger than the breach undead Viseryon carved in The Wall (Gendry the winter marathon runner). It also didn’t help that the characters are a shell of their former selves, only distinguishable because the actors have become who they portray. And, finally, as the nail in the coffin, it does no service to the story and the battles to come that there is no significant anticipation beyond the curiosity to find out who dies, who lives, and who wins. This war is merely physical, without ideology and deeper conflict, and it could’ve been so much more.
And the same can be said for Game of Thrones as a whole.