A lot of people are talking about Game of Thrones right now, so I guess I’ll add my voice to the clamor.
Heads up: there will be NO spoilers in this blog post. At least, no season five spoilers. Everything season one through four is fair game.
I’ve found myself going through the same transition during season five that I went through when I read book four of A Song of Ice and Fire. The story has ceased to surprise me. For several episodes now, everything that has happened I’ve seen coming. This despite the fact that I never read book five. And by all accounts, the HBO series is beginning to diverge from the book series anyway.
Yet there is one thing the HBO and book series hold in common: the hopelessness of hope. As the story progresses, the formula becomes increasingly clear and rigid. The heroic, noble, innocent, and likable are destined to be corrupted or, failing that, will die terrible and often demeaning deaths. The perverse, self-centered, cruel, and ruthless will survive and triumph. This is why for the past several episodes, pretty much every time something “terrible” has happened, I’ve just rolled my eyes and said, “Yup, I saw that coming too.”
I ran up against the same wall in book four. I realized I knew well ahead of time who was going to die or suffer, because by then I understood the profile of Martin’s victims, and he never altered that profile. If he had let one – just one – of those characters live, then I could have said, “Wow! That was a surprise.”
Now, I don’t want to come down on George R.R. Martin. I have great admiration for his work, and nothing, nothing can take away the amazing experience of reading those first three books in this classic series. He will forever be an icon in my eyes. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from reflecting on Martin’s legacy, it’s the importance of wrapping up a series before the reader figures out the formula. Or, if you’re going to continue a series indefinitely, try to switch out the formula once in a while, just to shake things up a bit.
I’ve also learned about the importance of hope, love, and compassion in story telling. All of these are in scarce supply in Martin’s world, and yet they are essential threads for any epic tale. Hope is what drives us to work toward a better future, to demand more of ourselves and others when confronting difficult times. Love and compassion are tools of transformation, capable of breaking down barriers and bridging any abyss that divides us. Hope, love, and compassion are what fuel our sense of agency in this world, the conviction that through individual actions and a sense of community, we can make a positive difference.
In Westeros, love and compassion have minimal significance. As a result, hope is inexorably eroded as the story progresses. There is a perverse genius behind this vision, a genius that can hold the reader’s attention for a long time. To the point where I suspect that what has kept most of us going into season five is not any hope inherent to the world of Westeros, but our own stubborn belief that somehow this whole mess will be turned on its head and the honorable will, at last, inherit the kingdom.
In all honesty, I don’t see that happening, simply because I don’t see any evidence that Martin is interested in or willing to switch up his formula. So here are my predictions as to where it will all lead. We can come back in a few years to see if I was right:
All of our favorite characters who are still standing are destined for miserable and demeaning deaths. Dany will be eaten by her dragons (it’s been clear for a long time she has no control over them anyway), but not before she’s been brought down from her pedestal as a woman of power and degraded under someone else’s whims. I don’t know what’s in store for Tyrion, but I’m certain he will die and that it will be an awful death. Sansa and Arya will go the same route as their parents and brother(s), and knowing HBO, we will likely be subjected to multiple rape and/or torture scenes before they are at last released from their misery. And so on. Sam, Gilly, Brienne, and everyone else you might label as basically a nice person is headed for the chopping block.
Once everyone we actually care about is dead, the White Walkers will sweep down from the north and kill all the perverts and torturers who remain. Then Dany’s dragons, having no humans left to eat, will roast the White Walkers and their undead army. The final scene will be three dragons, alone and triumphant over the snow-covered ruins of King’s Landing.
GoT will either end this way, or it won’t end at all.
In truth, I expect the latter is more likely. As the series goes on, our heroes become more scattered, more weakened, and depressingly, more dead. Perhaps in his evil genius, Martin has created a world that is simply an endless cycle of hopeless cruelty. Perhaps he has no intention of crafting the classic denouement or bringing any of it to a final resolution. Given the history, the pattern, and the formula, I can totally see this happening.
But, man. Wouldn’t it be nice if Martin could surprise us just one more time?