With each new episode of Game of Thrones, complaints about the hurried and inconsistent writing seem to mount. Longstanding threats are being dispatched too easily, and plot threads we thought would matter have been quietly dropped. More troubling still, character motivations appear to be in a state of flux, and much of the drama involves clever people committing obvious blunders and suffering reversals of fortune as a result. Some fans are so frustrated that they’ve launched a Change.org petition asking for the final season to be remade by “competent writers,” which is not how these things generally work. And honestly, it’s not as simple as good writing versus bad. No season that knights Brienne can be entirely bad. The problem is that the writing has changed, and it’s changed in a way that breaks important rules the show had previously set for itself. I think I know why.
Daniel Silvermint is a writer and Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Connecticut. You can find him on Twitter at @DSilvermint.
It all comes down to how stories are crafted, and for that, we need to start with two different types of writers: plotters and pantsers. Plotters create a detailed outline before they commit a word to the page. Pantsers prefer to discover the story as they write it—flying by the seat of their pants, so to speak. Both approaches have their advantages. Since plotters know the story in advance, it’s easier to create tight narratives with satisfying conclusions. But that amount of predestination can sometimes make characters feel like cogs in service of the story. Pantsers have an easier time writing characters that live and breathe. They generate the plot by dropping a person with desires and needs into a dramatic situation and documenting the results. But with the characters in charge, pantsers risk a meandering or poorly-paced structure, and can struggle to tie everything together.
To be clear, these are just advantages, not guarantees. Plotters can write memorable characters and pantsers can write thrilling sequences. The differences usually smooth themselves out over successive drafts, anyway. Where the effect can be pronounced is in an ongoing television or book series, since the beginning of the story gets released and digested by the public while the rest is still being written.
George R.R. Martin describes this distinction in terms of architects and gardeners. He’s firmly among the latter. He plants character seeds and carefully guides their growth, and when the show was directly adapting his A Song of Ice and Fire series, the approach paid off. It’s why every emotional beat and fair-in-hindsight surprise landed with such devastating weight: The terrible things that happened to these characters happened because of earlier choices they’d made. Those ever-blooming stories were a boon to the showrunners, who had their pick, but they’re also the reason the narrative momentum of the books slowed over time.
After the first major plot arc resolved in the third book, A Storm of Swords (Seasons 3 and 4), Martin planned to skip the story ahead five years. But he couldn’t make the gap in action feel true to the characters or the world, so he eventually decided to write his way through those five years instead. Knowing the bridging material wasn’t ever going to be as gripping as the central conflicts, he compensated by planting more seeds in more corners of his already complex world. And once he had them, he couldn’t prune them back without their resolutions feeling abrupt or forced. Worse, some of his idle characters were taking the opportunity to grow in the wrong directions, pulling away from the ending he had in mind for them. Soon, the garden was overgrown, the projected length of the series kept expanding, and the books stopped coming.
For the next couple seasons, showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss tried to take over management of Martin’s sprawling garden, simplifying and combining character arcs with mixed results. Then, with the start of Season 7, they shifted their focus from telling the unfolding story of an entire world to concluding a particular tale set within it. They gave themselves a fixed endpoint–13 episodes to the finale, and no more.
In so doing, the showrunners moved as far to one end of the plotter/pantser continuum as Martin is to the other. They weren’t trying to resolve every character arc or pay off every last bit of worldbuilding. They knew the destination Martin had in mind, they understood the dots they had to connect to get there, and they wanted to maximize fan entertainment along the way. Then, presumably, they asked themselves questions. What big set pieces did they want to deliver? What surprises could rival the greatest twists of the show? Which of the remaining conflicts would yield the best drama, and which on-screen pairings would bring the most emotion? What did they think we, the audience, wanted to finally see before it was all over? It was a Game of Thrones bucket list. And once they had that list, they needed to maneuver the characters into place.
That’s why Game of Thrones feels different now. A show that had been about our inability to escape the past became about the spectacle of the present. Characters with incredible depth and agency—all the more rope with which to hang themselves—became whatever the moment needed them to be. They took uncharacteristic actions and made uncharacteristically bad decisions so the required events could unfold with the appropriate stakes. Characters were spared the deaths they’d sown so they’d be available for later scenes. Organic consequences gave way to contrivance. Gone was the conflict between complicated people with incompatible goals. Grey morality turned black and white. Characters rushed through their foreshadowed arcs for the thinnest of reasons, or in some cases reversed their arcs entirely. The characters just weren’t in charge anymore. The ending was.
No one’s to blame. Really. Keeping a million plates spinning the way Martin did is hard, and if you’re the showrunners, setting those plates down without breaking too many is hard, too. Writing is hard. Especially when literally everyone’s watching.
Still, the approach to storytelling changed in the third act, and an audience can feel that happening. We fell in love with one kind of show, but that’s not the show that’s ending. No amount of spectacle or fan service is satisfying if we don’t buy how the characters got there. Treating the journey as equally important to the destination is how you get conclusions that feel earned, and it’s how characters stay alive after they’ve met their fates.
Endings invite us to consider the story as a whole; where it started, where it went, and where it left us. And we can feel the gaps as this one comes to a close.
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