The final season of Game of Thrones drew a record-shattering audience (the finale boasted more than 19 million viewers) and generated an explosion of commentary and criticism. Daniel Silvermint, a philosopher, offers one of the most apt assessments. (“Why the Writing in Game of Thrones Season8 Feels Off” Wired, May 19). Initial seasons of the program were based on George R.R. Martin’s not-yet-complete series of character-driven novels. When the books ran out, the series continued by settling on the place that writers and producers wanted things to end up, and then reverse engineering the plot backward from that fictional state of affairs. According to Silvermint: “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.” The characters flattened in just the way characters do when they become vehicles to further some facet or other of a plot and (at least sometimes) not much more. Escalating spectacle took over from investment in characters. Glaring inconsistencies like Tyrion’s mistakes were less noticeable amid explosions of zombies and dragonfire.
Aristotle can help us see the problem. In the Poetics, he contrasts cases in which emotional response to drama is aroused by the structure of the plot and those in which it is aroused principally by spectacle, maintaining that the former tactic is artistically superior to the latter: “The poet should construct the plot so that even if the action is not performed before spectators, one who merely hears the incidents that have occurred both shudders and feels pity from the way they turn out …. The achievement of this effect through the spectacle does not have much to do with poetic art and really belongs to the business of producing a play. Those who use the spectacle to create not the fearful but only the monstrous have no share in the creation of tragedy.”
Aristotle’s criticism here takes aim, not at all works that arouse viewer response by means of spectacle (which may, after all, be harnessed for laudable ends), but only those that use spectacle to cover deficiencies in the narrative by arousing emotion that the narrative isn’t equipped to elicit by itself, or by distracting from lacunae that might otherwise lead to imaginative resistance. Indeed, the narrative itself can sometimes just be subordinated to spectacle. There were a few moments like that in the final season of Game of Thrones. The Dothraki charge, flaming swords aloft, into the oncoming forces of the Night King was indeed spectacular, and even more distressingly so when those swords slowly flickered out as the advance was absorbed by the army of the dead. Nonetheless, infuriated armchair military strategists noted that it was insane not to send in the air force (aka, dragons) first. In such cases, spectacular effects seemed to trump narrative consistency and development.
But narrative shortfalls may be counteracted. Many devoted watchers of Game of Thrones, especially those of us who have read all the books, cannot help but observe the trajectory of the plot and the interactions of its people through the eyes of (or at least with an eye to the unique perspective of) a particular beloved character. The only episode which will remain in my DVR cache in perpetuity is from the penultimate season – the glorious moment when Arya and Sansa join forces and turn the tables on Littlefinger. Two very young women outthink and annihilate the Machiavellian villain who has tricked and betrayed most of the major male characters in the saga. Few plot developments could be more satisfying.
I have loved Arya from the beginning. There is an Arya Stark action figure on my office desk. I too have a sister with whom I can join forces to devastating effect. I even used to fence. It is no wonder then that, despite its admitted flaws, I could not take serious issue with the final season of Game of Thrones. It is Arya who defeats the Night King and saves the world. It is Arya who, in the end, becomes Ulysses, whose purpose holds (in Tennyson’s words) “to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars, until I die.” It is Arya, not Daenerys or Jon, in whom the questing hero archetype so often found in fantasy is most fully embodied. She doesn’t need or want to rule. She rids the world of its most lethal threat and moves on to explore new worlds. Martin’s initial investment in the evolution of his characters will, at least in the case of some of them, be maintained by his audience.