How do we fix Game of Thrones?
When season seven of Game of Thrones came out a lot of people started noticing that it felt different; not necessarily bad, depending on who you ask, but different, not quite the same as it had been. And since I, like a lot of people, have spent hundreds of hours reading watching and discussing this story I tried to put my finger on what that difference was and how, if I may be so bold, it could potentially have been better.
As any good story sawbones knows you need a diagnosis before you can start cutting, because before we can fix the problems we need to know what's caused them.
Part One: Character VS Plot
Saying a story is driven either by character or plot is an oversimplification but let's agree that a story can be focused more towards plot or towards character. By "plot focus" I mean the external action is the major driving force while "character focus" means the choices and development of the characters are central to what happens next. So a character-focused story doesn't lack a plot but it's less likely to be "ah the evil monsters are attacking" and more "ah my previous decisions have led me to this demise."
So what focus does a Song of Ice and Fire have?
Well, it's character because George R.R. Martin is a tried and true gardener as opposed to a planner. He sows the seeds of the story and it grows before him. On the upside this has led to some of the most memorable moments in fantasy history and on the downside he's happy to let his characters get completely out of hand. This has led to him solving problems by making the story even more complex, throwing more characters in and puzzling over the "Meereenese knot" for 17 years even though most readers would be happy if he just blew up the pyramid and got on with it. Sure, that would not have been elegant but we are willing to suspend a lot of disbelief if it's in the effort of making a better, more fun story.
Which brings us to David Benioff and Dan Weiss who are on the opposite side of the spectrum. They are great visual storytellers and thinkers who for years have acted as editors carving away at Martin's massive work picking the best pieces and sticking them together into a sequence that sometimes has a much stronger plot and momentum than the original. This balance between character and plot – between Martin and Benioff/Weiss – has been one of the strongest features of HBO's Game of Thrones and it's truly been an amazing adaptation, taking what was good about the original and enhancing it by playing to the strengths of its new medium.
Then they caught up with the books.
Granted, there were some missteps before then but this split from the books is undoubtedly a major turning point for the show where suddenly, instead of getting to pick the best of 2 million words, the writers only had some small bullet points and vague outlines to base their story on. And we know that those outlines can't add up completely – there's going to be some fuzzy parts that need to be filled in because otherwise George would have, you know, actually finished it. So it's just not going to be the same, it's going to become something different, something unspeakable, it's going to become...
Part Two: Television
Tons of people have said this; that season 7 felt like an extremely well-made but ordinary fantasy TV show. I think this is because it's leaning more towards plot, and character motivations (which used to be so central) bend this way and that based on whatever needs to happen. It's egregiously obvious in the build-up and climax of episodes 5 & 6, where Tyrion proposes an excursion beyond the wall. This is the part where so many viewers put their feet down and said "we cannot suspend our disbelief any longer, this is ridiculous.
The reason it feels ridiculous is that we've been trained for years in how this world works. It's been a story that delights in subverting expectations and going against the conventions of its own genre in a way that's just refreshing and different, especially on TV, because there's a lot of innovative fantasy novels but the same is not necessarily true for epic fantasy on television.
That's why Game of Thrones has often been described as a gateway into the genre; fantasy for people who don't like fantasy, who don't want to see good brave princes and heroes that always win. This stands a bit in contrast to season 7 where there's good brave princes and evil overlords and heroes that win the day a bit too often to be believable. Granted, we are coming up on the end of the story and there's only so many ways it can go. I mean, if they shocked us by cut off Danny's head in episode 3 that wouldn't necessarily make the story better and despite all my whining I actually think season 7 is quite good. It's just that there are so many details that could have easily been altered to make it all make a whole lot more sense and make it feel a lot more like Game of Thrones.
And the first of those things is...
Part Three: Kill Bronn
Whoa, don't close the tab yet, hear me out, okay?
The loot train attack (S07E04: The Spoils of War) is visually awesome but there's no real price paid on either side. Essentially nothing changes because of this sequence. Daenerys still isn't flying in to take over King's Landing, Drogon doesn't really get hurt and neither does Jamie, Bronn or Tyrion. They even make sure to say all the gold gets into King's Landing, meaning that this blow is pretty insignificant in the war effort. Sure we roast some Tarlys but does anyone care?
There are a couple of ways this sequence could have been more impactful and the first is roasting Bronn alive, which I would do for three main reasons.
First reason: There's too many fake deaths. I don't want to kill off characters just for the sake of it but every fake out death erodes at the feel of the show the sense of danger they've so carefully constructed over the years, and in season 7 there are simply too many.
Second reason: Bronn's been around for ages, adventuring with both Lannister brothers; he's a likeable character and his death would make it feel like the things happening had actual weight. Moreover, with his quips and easy manner he represents the lighter side of Game of Thrones. His very presence often makes you feel like you're watching a fun romp, a buddy cop movie. Killing him would signal the end of that more lighthearted time in Game of Thrones history which is really what we should be doing here with just a few episodes to go until the fate of the world is decided.
Third reason: Bronn's death would not only impact us, the viewers, but also Jamie and especially Tyrion, who for the rest of the season continues to push for a peaceful solution – which is exactly what he's been doing up to this point already. This whole sequence is a fantastic place to put a turning point for Tyrion since he's grown used to commanding from council chambers and now he's face to face with war once again.
What if Tyrion arrives in Westeros and finds that he still has anger in his heart towards his family, towards the nobles who despised him... What if breaking the wheel to him means fulfilling this old fantasy: "I wish I had enough poison for the whole pack of you! I would gladly give my life to watch you all swallow it." (Tyrion Lannister in S04E06: The Laws of Gods and Men)
If Tyrion starts out the season full of anger and then sees his own friend burned alive that would be a better motivator for him to push for this alliance that eventually ends up happening. Instead he kind of just wants the same thing through the whole season even though it doesn't add up with the Tyrion we know and love. Those are my reasons for saying bye-bye Bronn but don't think the other half of this power couple is getting off scott-free either!
Part Four: Capture Jamie
After the big loot train battle, didn't anyone wonder where the Kingslayer went? Stakes and consequences used to be so central in Game of Thrones and during the battle Jamie makes the choice to rush straight at a huge, deadly dragon against all odds. I like this decision, it's totally in line with him growing up worshiping tales of knights and honor and chivalry, as we know he did, but in Game of Thrones we're supposed to be deconstructing those tales and if he just swims away after valiantly charging a dragon that's the show telling us that we are now in one of those fairy tales. He doesn't need to die for it but he should at the very least be captured.
It's made very important to Tyrion whether the Tarleys get burned or not but wouldn't that scene have had a lot more sense if one of the people captured was Jaime Lannister? Later on we jump through hoops so that Tyrion and Jamie can have a chat in the bowels of King's Landing but this same dialogue could have been held with Jamie in chains, and it would have afforded some pretty interesting scenes with Dany and Jaime seeing eye-to-eye since, after all, he did kill her father.
Although many people are quick to forgive that sort of thing these days.
Coming face-to-face with Daenerys would mean Jamie confronting his past and it could cause him to alter his present. A captured Jamie would also have been better leverage to make an agreement with Cersei than any ice zombie could possibly be because Cersei doesn't care about zombies; she employs one. The only thing she maybe cares about is her brother-husband and their potential unborn child. Maybe Tyrion even convinces Daenerys to let Jamie go as a show of good faith.
We'd end up in the same place but these action set-pieces would feel a whole lot more important if they brought actual consequences and having Bronn and Jamie both escape, it just feels like David Benioff and Dan Weiss are writing and structuring in a way that does as much as possible to negate the cool moments that they are otherwise so adept at crafting! Speaking of which...
Part Five: Tyrion Is Dumb and Everything He Does Is Dumb
The plan put forward by Tyrion in S07E05: Eastwatch is one of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard. Tyrion's writing has taken a downturn ever since the books vanished, most notably his jokes, but even if all that drinking finally caused some brain damage, there's no way this plan is believable. Granted, maybe he doesn't know how tricky it would be to get a zombie; after all Jon's talking like there's an abundance readily available up north, but the fact that Tyrion would think that Cersei would work with a younger, hotter queen under any circumstances -- never mind the absolute burning hatred she has for her own brother -- it's just laughable.
And that's the whole point of this plan -- convinced Cersei Lannister! Let's risk the King in the North and the dragons and everything for that when succeeding will barely accomplish anything and failure comes at a huge price. To make matters worse, they make this decision right after dealing what should have been a major blow against Cersei in the loot train attack. At least if this happened after the setbacks of the previous episodes, an alliance would have made more sense but at this point Cersei's taken such a beating that she's already up for an alliance without the need of a zombie! She says herself: "An accommodation with the Dragon Queen could be in our immediate interest. We have to fight her like father would have." And remember, Tywin generally fought people more powerful than him by marrying his children to them. Cersei wants this truce without seeing any undead and in fact seeing it only makes her more confident in her backstabbing since there's something out there that's gonna weaken her enemies. Cersei not honouring the deal makes sense but Tyrion being stupid enough to put forward this plan does not.
Part Six: The Best Laid Plans of Ice and Men
The lack of stakes I talked about in the loot train attack is also present in the polar bear fight up north in Episode 6. It's fairly obvious why they put it in (because it's awesome) but what does it actually do for the story? What changes by the end of this fight? It shows us that the Hound is afraid of fire which we've seen many times before, and it reminds us that beasts can be turned undead, preparing us for what's to come at the end of the episode, but if it's meant to show that the north is dangerous then utilizing no-name, no-face characters as strawmen in the fight has the opposite effect. It shows us that the main cast is more important and more safe than other people in this world, eroding further away at the core of the show.
It seems the goal of writing this whole escapade beyond the Wall was to get the Night King a Dragon and I do feel like there are better ways. Even just having some extra component to the plan would have helped; if they just had a map of the north drawn with Tormund and wildling help, something like "we're gonna be on this side of the lake, the army's on that side, this will keep us safe." Or what about this? The army of the dead can sense living creatures, smell them or something, but this crew just happens to have two resurrected characters. What if Jon Snow and Beric Dondarrion therefore cannot be sensed by the army and have to infiltrate it? Yes, I'm saying that going Shaun of the Dead would have made more sense than what actually happened.
I'm not married to these ideas but if they just had a plan B and a Plan C and those failed then it would have made sense to go for the ridiculous plan D that involves calling on their last hope, namely sending word to Daenerys to come help even though she's on the other side of the world map!
But wait, why am I trying to patch things up when there's a more obvious fix?
Part Seven: The Mother of Dragons
When Melisandre shows up and talks of an old prophecy there's this awkward translation goof, meaning that "hey maybe the prophecy's about Dany," but instead Dany's reaction should have been "a prophecy, how quaint. I don't care what the past thought about the future. I'm building my own future." She's entitled to be a bit full of herself; she's got the biggest army, actual dragons, the best of all the lands she's travelled and her failures this season have been more or less contrived. I would like her failures to instead be born of overconfidence.
As we've mentioned the reason for this "go north" plan is to convince Cersei but they could have easily made this expedition about Daenerys instead; her support is three dragons more important after all and the bits and pieces of evidence could be enough to convince Daenerys to go and have a look. She can even make a deal with Jon: "I'll burn these frost ghosts of yours and you bend the knee." And it would makes perfect sense for her not to be afraid of these northern ice creatures creatures was she afraid of the Warlocks of Qarth? Was she afraid of the Khals of a great grass sea or the sons of the harpy? So far, burning has been a good solution to most of our problems. Jon Snow on the other hand knows how dangerous the Night King is but he agrees because the might of the Dragons could be exactly what's needed; in Jon's view this will convince Daenerys or even present an opportunity to end the war!
So there's a royal excursion to the north, on dragon back from the start. After some adventuring Jon sees and points out the Night King, Daenerys takes them in for a strafing attack - not only does the fire not affect the night King, he also hurls his spear and that poor lizard out. Maybe John sees what's about to happen he knows the true horror and tries to stop the attack but Daenerys is queen of dragons and she's not afraid of anything. This way her own overconfidence brings down her dragon which will be a greater motivator to change than just seeing the army of the dead and their power. When they're shot down, invincible Daenerys has to come to terms with their own mortality. This is her turning point where she sees death and danger on a level she's not faced since her dragons were born and grown. Of course the other dragons can't save them from this situation because of the danger so just imagine Jon and Daenerys stuck in the ice surrounded by some loyal friends who die, and I mean die, to save them. To get them out you could have Bran do something useful for once, warging into a giant polar bear and coming in just in time to give them an exit. You could even have Benjin integral to saving them just you know give it time and don't pop him in for a combined screen time of 17 seconds.
Tyrion brings up the topic of Daenerys needing an heir which is actually a good point and maybe something that should have been brought up earlier this seaso and given time to grow. We could show how Daenerys sees herself as invincible, refusing to think of the possibility of her dying and then this happens and she sees where her hubris has brought them all. This would be a better reason to go and make a deal with Cersei in the final episode of the season. At least one of their friends would have died in the escape and they're forced to use that friend, turned now into a wight, in their final arguments in the Dragon Pit to wrap up the season. I really feel like this would give Daenerys more of an arc and more character development than just having her fall for Jon Snow faster than Viserion going through that ice.
Part Eight: I am an Idiot
George RR Martin was a TV writer who returned to writing novels specifically because he was tired of all the constraints:
"I've done pilots and TV shows tried to keep him within budget and producible, they never make that, I'm tired of playing that game, I'm gonna you know I have a big imagination I have an epic story I want to tell I'm gonna make it as big as my imagination." (George R.R. Martin)
So we essentially made what is an unadaptable story the fact that it's instead been made into one of the best television shows of all time is remarkable. With a writing project this big there's a lot of moving parts I myself in countless other viewers have thought up ways to "fix" the writing but this is a story with characters and threads spread out over years and years, and maybe making the changes I suggest would have opened up more plot holes in other places. I don't know how making these changes would affect the rest of the storylines or the production constraints of the show and more importantly, I sat around thinking about this for a few hours in my underwear; that's about the level of commitment required from me. I didn't have a deadline which the writers of Game of Thrones have had a million of over the past ten years.That's a long time and I can't help feeling like they've lost some of that glimmer in their eye - but who can blame them! They signed on to spend a decade of their lives on a single project and they haven't even gotten to the finish.
To make matters worse it's very clear that they didn't sign up for this. The series began development in January 2007 and at the time of making any deals the showrunners could be quite confident that they could continue adapting the books up until the end. "Hell, we'll even make book three into two seasons, how about that George? That should do it, right George?!" But it wasn't enough. They didn't have the books anymore and they just had to try to make it make sense. And the pressure of getting it all to add up is exactly what's prevented Martin from finishing this story. The big difference is that he actually can take his time to figure out the next plot movement.
"My very first deadlines on Game of Thrones I blew fairly spectacularly and I've been blowing every deadline I've been given ever since." (George R.R. Martin)
For Benioff and Weiss there's no such excuse, not with hundreds of people's jobs depending on them to deliver with contract signed presumably in blood since they're running the flagship of HBO, not to mention a show that's considered by many people is the best of all time. That's a lot of pressure. And you got to do it in a year. Actually you got to do the writing in a few months because, you know, we got to film it too. They used to have such a wealth of wonderful scenes and dialogue to pick and choose from and now they're on their own. On the detail level, on the structure level, and there's no time.
That's really my conclusion here and what I'm going to try to apply to my own writing: Take your time. Because these fixes were easy from an armchair perspective but not when you imagine cramming all this into seven episodes in a limited period of time. On the other hand, trying to do something just perfect might slow you down to a crawl. Like George.
It's a constant balance and since I see season seven of Game of Thrones as a good story that could have used some more drafts some more feedback I'll conclude by saying that when you have the opportunity share your writing before it's finished, get some feedback and that might fix everything faster and easier than you think.
Text published March, 2021
Video published September, 2017