‘Game of Thrones’: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

SPOILERS ahead for Game of Thrones.


Games of Thrones is a show largely about the terrible things that men do to one another. Throughout its five years on the air, the show, like the books upon which it is based, has repeatedly shown us all manners of death and rape and horror. At its best, the series has played on our built-in conditioning that comes from lifetimes of devouring fiction in its various media, subverting our expectations that the good guys eventually win, or that good guys can even exist for long. Disappointment and agony are arguably linked to the very core of this series.

Which is why I’ve been finding it difficult over the past 12+ hours, or even going back a few weeks to the S5E6 Sansa rape, to explain why I’m so disgusted and put off by two of Season 5’s big developments: the rape of Sansa Stark and the burning alive of Shireen Baratheon. Rape has been a frequent player in the show, and spousal rape was featured prominently as early as the pilot, with Drogo raping Daenerys (and the fact that she then fell in love with her rapist is also a troubling treatment of the subject). Murder is nearly omnipresent, including that of children and innocents; Season 2 opened with Joffrey’s extermination of all his dead father’s bastard children, including babies literally snatched from their mothers’ breasts. All of that was horrific and unpleasant to watch — but we moved on. So why am I having such a hard time now?

I think the single biggest factor is sheer fatigue. The series has gone to the well of horror so many times that by any reasonable standard, it should be drying up by now. I’ve paid attention, and have no expectation of a happy ending. But at some point, this is ceasing to be an edgy and subversive structure, and more just a parade of terrible tragedies. The lesson we all learned from Ned Stark’s death in Season 1, and again with the Red Wedding in Season 3, has already been made abundantly clear. This isn’t a traditional hero’s journey, and most of the characters will, at best, occupy shades of gray, if not be outright monsters. We all get it already. The more this series keeps hammering home the same point, over and over, the less interesting it becomes. The subversion factor is gone. The series is too big, and its nihilism too prevalent; Game of Thrones is now a monolith unto itself, and as such, it’s parade of horrors has nothing to subvert.

It certainly has ceased to be surprising. Ned dying was genuinely shocking. The Red Wedding perhaps shouldn’t have been in retrospect, but it still was. But when the default of the series is to go automatically for the worst possible outcome, we become conditioned to it. It’s been five years; we’ve adjusted to the formula. As dismayed as I was about what happened to Shireen last night, I certainly wasn’t surprised. It had been telegraphed for weeks, if not years. I still held out hope til the end that it would be averted, but that was out of sheer desperation, a hope without real hope. This show signals its moves by the mere act of building a character up. Ser Barristan fondly remembers bygone days with a dearly departed prince, and then gets gutted in an alley. Sansa is ready to take affirmative action to have actual agency in avenging her family, and then gets repeatedly raped and abused and locked in a tower. Shireen gets a healthy dose of fatherly love early this season, just so the show could crudely make it all the more painful to watch its abandonment. Even going back to the Red Wedding, there was the show’s creation of Talisa Stark, a TV departure from the utterly bland Jeyne Westerling of the books. Before the episode “The Rains of Castamere,” book fans speculated online about a so-called Honeypot Theory, in which Talisa would turn out to have been working with the Lannisters all along to lead Robb to his doom. It could have been quite the surprise, if done right. But the reality was much simpler. Show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss weren’t going for some grand twist. They just wanted to turn the knife a little harder in the Red Wedding by adding a likable wife and an unborn child to the body count.

And we’ve reached the point where it feels like that’s all the show has to offer anymore. It can build characters up, quite well in fact, and make it hurt even worse when it kills them. And in doing so, it will add nothing. It will teach no new lesson about this world. It will subvert nothing, because there’s nothing left to tear down in this creation. It will just drag itself from one horror to the next, and mix in some impressive action scenes to try to make you forget how terrible it is what you’re watching.

So let’s take a moment and remember. In just the second half of this season, we’ve seen a teenage girl be forced to marry a monster, then brutally raped as the camera work does its best to place our sympathies with Theon, as if witnessing the brutality compares to the victim’s pain. And the context was crucial there. Sansa’s entire Season 5 arc up to episode 6 had revolved around her no longer being a “bystander to tragedy”; the show was intentionally giving us hope that she was on the verge of acquiring real power and taking an active role in righting wrongs. Then it tore her back down in the worst way possible, stripping her of any semblence of agency and using her rape as a mere prop to reinforce the evil of a character whom we already hated plenty enough.

Then last night, we watched an intelligent, charismatic little girl dote upon everyone around her with love, then shriek in fear and pain and she’s led to be burned alive. While there has been a fair amount of well-earned criticism of Shireen’s fate, I’ve been amazed by the number of defenders it also has. I think perhaps the show has made us so desensitized to its tragedies that not everyone fully processes what they’re seeing. This was a child, screaming in terror for her father as he watched impassionately and murdered her in the pursuit of selfish gains. This was taking one of the only innocent characters on a show that delights in its moral grayness and condemning her to a fearful and agonizing death, without her ever even understanding why her love and loyalty is being repaid with such unswerving hatred and selfishness. This was killing a mockingbird, and making the audience listen to its cries.

And look, I get that this is all fiction. Shireen’s actress, Kerry Ingram, is still alive, and if there’s any better justice in real life than in Game of Thrones, has a wonderful career ahead of her, befitting her impressive young talent. Sansa’s actress, Sophie Turner, was even oddly chipper about that rape scene. Life moves on, and such. But if we’re going to celebrate the high points in such fiction, then its low points likewise deserve to be called out for what they are. And Game of Thrones has reached a point where it is no longer good fiction.


It is a show that relies too heavily on shock value, seemingly unaware that it has largely lost the ability to surprise via horror. (As a book reader, I know the main event that will occur in next week’s finale, but even if I didn’t, I can’t imagine it would surprise me much just from having paid attention to the show’s reliable pattern.) It is a show obsessed with building up its villains to the point where they’re closer to caricatures. We already hated Ramsey without him raping Sansa, but the show doesn’t know where to stop as it tries to make us reach peak hate levels before presumably killing him. We remembered Ser Meryn’s abuses in King’s Landing, but the show decided to make him a pedophile too, as if desperately reminding us that we’re supposed to hate him (we know!) via a terrified girl prostitute so that his obviously inevitable showdown with Arya will theoretically be slightly sweeter. And it wanted to hammer home that this is a cruel and injust world by murdering a terrified child, but we knew that, too. We knew all of it. And heaping more injustices upon the pile doesn’t make the rare bits of sunshine sweeter if you can only focus on all the darkness you had to muck through to get there.

It just blows my mind that slightly less than a month ago, I wrote these halfway point power rankings, declaring Game of Thrones the “best show on earth” in passing, as if that statement didn’t even need argument. And to me, it didn’t; I have LOVED this series. At that point, it still seemed as if we might be building to something better, with the show using its increasing divergence from the books to build a new way — as Dany would later put it, to break the wheel. It seems impossible that it could squander so much good will in such a short amount of time, yet here we are. The show’s passing of the books no longer feels like a possible blessing, as it can’t seem to present its atrocities in a digestible form without George R.R. Martin’s words as a guide. And this is not to let Martin completely off the hook. His books are filled with even more horrors, and according to Weiss and Benioff, his series has its own version of Shireen’s death in its future (though it doesn’t really make sense, for where things are at in the books, that it could happen in as awful of a way with Stannis’ direct involvement). And yet, for his faults, which themselves warrant further consideration, Martin has usually managed to make suffering a means to an end, rather than the show’s increasing use of suffering as an end unto itself.

So now, GoT‘s title of best show on earth passes perhaps to Orphan Black, or maybe Daredevil or even Community again. And as for Thrones itself, I honestly don’t know where we go from here. After Sansa’s rape at the end of episode 6, I couldn’t enjoy episode 7 at all with that horrible taste still in my mouth, but then the impressive ice battle at the end of episode 8’s “Hardhomme” won me back over again. But Shireen’s murder left me cold again. Episode 9 ended with an incredible piece of drama as the Sons of the Harpy were unveiled, Drogon showed up in a deus ex machina, and Dany finally rode a dragon (albeit with surprisingly mediocre special effects). That was a scene that should have blown me away, and yet I genuinely was entirely numb to it after the events earlier in the episode. It had no effect on me. If anything, I think about the ending of “Hardhomme” now, and root for the White Walkers to just go ahead and wipe out everyone.

Now, we’re on the verge of the season finale, with at least a couple other scenes that I know should blow me away, and I cannot muster the slightest enthusiasm for it. Right now, I don’t even care if I watch the finale, or this show. I suppose I could follow Weiss and Benioff’s lead here and make a dramatic and needless statement that I’m quitting Game of Thrones, but I really don’t know yet if that’s true. The finale is still six days away, and I may yet calm down and want to see it, or more likely, remain ambivalent but watch out of sheer curiosity and habit. Even if not, the next season is still a full 10 months away, plenty of time for this opinion to cool down and my excitement to possibly rekindle.

But in any event, I want to memorialize what I’m feeling about Game of Thrones now, using the immortal words of one of Shakespeare’s best soliloquies, the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” from Macbeth. As the titular Macbeth nears his end, he accepts the futility of all life’s endeavors, recognizing the inevitability that it will all be torn down and forgotten. All these struggles feel hollow, empty, and meaningless.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

That is what Game of Thrones is becoming: a poor player itself, fretting upon its parade of horrors while it uses women as props in its bleak violence, then furiously trying to distract us with sound and fury and dragons. And what we’re really being left with, is nothing.

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  1. Daaamn, dropping the Kill a Mockingbird AND the MacBeth references! I thought this was your show? Lol

    • Well, it was. As you of course know, I’d even recently taken part in a rewatch of the first two seasons (that was/still may keep going into 3 and 4). So like I said, it feels shocking to me that I got to the point where I was writing this post. And rereading it after calming a bit, I was probably a little harsh at a couple places. But, I do genuinely believe the show has some structural issues in its writing that have been growing worse this season without having the books to follow as closely. While those problems manifested themselves worst in the Sansa and Shireen moments to me, I think the season is unfortunately littered with moments of questionable writing here and there.

      The entire Dorne plot, for instance, has essentially amounted to nothing; it produced some strong Jaime and Bronn banter early on, but it failed to build up the Sand Snakes and the tension surrounding the competing Myrcella plots, had an anticlimactic confrontation, and basically petered out from there. Or take the circumstances leading up to Stannis making the choice to burn Shireen. We’ve been repeatedly told that Stannis is the greatest military mind left in Westeros, but while camping in the winter in enemy-occupied territory, he can’t even defend his own camp from 20 men causing an absolute catastrophe. (The show tried to skirt that by having him angry at the guards, and Davos mentioning the Northerners home-court advantage, but a couple of throwaway lines didn’t really make up for the fact that this great general was written into a convenient contrivance of being wholly unprepared for an obvious threat.) And the attack relied also on Ramsey apparently being able to lead a crack team of ninjas; the writing has built Ramsey up as highly gifted in physical and psychological torture, but him being suddenly gifted in covert ops literally came out of nowhere.

      And there are other examples, too, but suffice to say, it’s just been a largely sloppily written season even aside from its problems with women and parades of horror.

  2. yeah…I kinda like the Dorn stuff though. But I get what your saying. I guess my only problem with the “parade of horrors” is I don’t know that the show could go lighter and still be realistic in that world. Like take the Sansa thing. In the books she’s just hanging out at the Eerie for a long time and it’s not that interesting, so the show tries to give her something better. WInterfell the obvious choice in that Jane Pool story. But once they got her there, didn’t they kind of have to do the thing with Ramsay? Yeah it was horrible, but given what we’d seen of Ramsay before, it would have been out of character for him to NOT do that. And I don’t think stuff like dragons and white walkers are supposed to distract us from the terrible things. I think those are the real point in the show’s eyes (they spend alot of money of thse) and everything else is them trying to fill in along the way till their next big moment.

    • I can’t buy that the show had no choice but to have Sansa get raped. And if they wrote themselves into that corner, then that’s still their own fault. I’ll agree that it would have been hard to stay compelling if she had stayed in the Eyrie or been touring the Fingers, etc., with Littlefinger like in the books. I’ll even agree that getting her back to Winterfell was a sensible alternative. But I think it was entirely possible to avoid her current predicament once there. Here are three alternatives, that literally came to top of my head after that episode:

      1) They could have had Sansa prevent the assault on her own. (This is my favorite option, as someone who was getting really excited about the idea of Strong Sansa after all these years.) When she was fiddling with the sleeve of her dress right before the assault, I half expected her to pull out a knife, put it to Ramsey’s groin, and threaten to cut his balls off if he tried anything. Obviously Sansa can’t match Ramsey in a real fight, but Ramsey doesn’t strike me as someone willing to gamble with his genitalia. This of course would have resulted in her having to remain alert and wary of him the rest of the season, since he’d surely be wanting revenge for the insult of standing up to him, which good writers could have turned into new and interesting trials for a Strong Sansa — certainly more interesting than seeing her returned to having to cower in abuse and fear, something that’s already been done to her plenty.

      2) They made the effort to put one of the kingdom’s best fighters, Brienne, in the same city as this girl whom she’s sworn to protect. That’s something that presumably will pay off in some way eventually, probably as early as this Sunday’s season finale (though whether she’ll act on Sansa’s behalf, or toward revenge against the attacking Stannis, I’m unsure). But they could have tripped that wire far earlier and avoided the torture. Perhaps even have Littlefinger accept Brienne into Sansa’s service at the beginning of the season, and make keeping Brienne on as a servant to Sansa a condition of the marriage contract with the Boltons. This would frankly make more sense than Baelish abandoning Sansa, in whom he’s invested much, into who knows what fate. It also would have made better use of Brienne, whom we’ve barely seen since early in the season. (I thought at one point early on that we might see her and Podrick become the series’ versions of the Ghost of Winterfell, but alas, we couldn’t even have that.)

      3) In the books, the Boltons are at Winterfell with a number of other notable Northern lords and ladies. None of them are exactly heroic types, but I vaguely recall some general unease about their new Bolton overlords. Writing in a couple, or even ONE of them, might have created a check upon the Boltons’ power so that Ramsey would feel he had to be (or more likely, that his father would order that he be) on his best behavior, especially around Sansa, in order to keep these Northerners’ tepid support. Admittedly, none of these people were able to prevent the treatment Jeyne Poole, who was being passed off as Arya, receives from Ramsey in the books. I’m not sure if they even knew or cared, for that matter. But given the extreme departures the show has already made from the books, it would have been easy enough to create a Northern lord or lady or two who actually recognizes Sansa, regularly checks up on her, and whose presence causes an uneasy pause of Ramsey’s psychotic tendencies.

      Any of these three options, which could also be used in combination with each other, could have believably prevented Sansa’s rape without having to write Ramsey out of character. In fact, they could have created a half-season of tension by hanging the lurking threat of Ramsey over our heads, knowing that whatever is preventing him from carrying out his base urges will only hold someone like him in check for so long.

      And those are just ideas that I, some random fan on the internet, came up with pretty easily. A team of professional writers on arguably the most high-profile show on television should be able to do at least as well, and preferably better. Instead, they opted for the most brutal option, as the show has done so very often, choosing to tear down another woman rather than find ways to give her agency. It comes all back around to what I said in this post: the show seems to only know how, or rather, be interested in trying to shock us with horrific twists. At some point, that just becomes bad writing, and that’s an incredibly big factor in why this isn’t a very good show this season.

  3. I’m going to just leave a comment here instead of opening a new post, in the hopes of not getting as long-winded. So here are some brief (or relatively brief, by my standards) final Season 5 thoughts, with SPOILERS for the whole season including the finale.

    As you can guess easily enough, I did watch the S5 finale despite some reluctance to the very end. As everyone knows now, it was rather … eventful. So eventful, in fact, that I think the show perhaps could have saved itself at least some of its earlier pacing problems by spreading out a few of these events: for instance, like how the show killed Lysa Arryn/Baelish in Episode 7 last year instead of saving it for another finale death. The finale felt over-crowded at times, leading to some mild rushing. For instance, Stannis’ entire downfall was insanely quick, with the long-awaited “battle in the snow” entirely yadda yadda yadda’d over. After so much build-up, we see relatively little of Stannis actually having to come to terms with his failures. Then he gets killed off-screen, which felt bizarre and inconsistent for a show that revels so much in the goriness of long-awaited death scenes (see: Trant, Meryn). That inconsistency even led to a question of unlikely reprieve, though the showrunners have said he is, in fact, dead.

    The choice to kill a leading man off-screen felt almost cowardly to me when compared with what the women go through in this episode. Trant abuses a couple more girls before meeting his grisly end. Myrcella gets killed for the sake of Jaime’s character development, yet another instance of the show unsubtly foreshadowing a death just by giving a character a sweet or tender moment. (Myrcella’s death was ridiculously unsubtle anyway, with the Kiss of Death being so blatant that it felt silly for no one to be immediately concerned. Needlessly cutting back to Ellaria and the Sand Snakes on the deck felt like the equivalent of announcing to the audience you’re going to become the Riddler.) And, of course, Cersei’s walk of shame, a powerful moment that went on far too long. The length was obviously intended to be uncomfortable, but it was overboard well before it finished; and like I said, I couldn’t help but notice how much more graphic Cersei’s downfall was than Stannis’. All sorts of writing issues pop up along the way, with coincidence playing a bigger and bigger role. Brienne looks away juuuuuust before she would have seen Sansa’s candle. Dany drops her ring in the grass so that Jorah and Daario will find it (then her) next season, which is absolutely ludicrous; they have no idea even a general area of where she went, but they’re obviously going to stumble across this hint of a ring in the midst of the great wide Dothraki grass sea. It hasn’t even happened yet and I’m already annoyed.

    But of course, there were all the big moments that were still moving and/or effective. Cersei’s walk was excessive, but brilliantly acted. Sansa and Reek exit (hopefully permanently) the plotline from hell. Tyrion and Varys get to run a city again (thank all the gods). The show telegraphed things like Brienne/Stannis or Olly/Jon too heavily, leaving little real suspense for anyone paying close enough attention, but it could still nail that stuff when the time came. Even knowing that the “for the Watch” scene was coming for years, I still found it incredible.

    And that’s where we end Season 5 for Game of Thrones: as a show that exists mostly for its big moments, and does most of them stunningly well. As a show that doesn’t treat male and female characters equally, sometimes in troubling ways. As a show with a growing amount of sloppy writing that is becoming bothersome and annoying. As a show that reaches higher highs than anything else on television, and because of those highs, is all the more frustrating when it spends so much time in its mounting low points.

  4. Pingback: Did ‘Daredevil’ nail the ending of its second season? (No, really: did it?) - Seven Inches of Your Time

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