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A Song of Ice and Fire condemns violence, but Game of Thrones is just plain in love with it

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HBO

The genius of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire isn't his prose — which is often rote — it's his world building, and his ability to craft a story in which every action has consequences and carries thematic weight. No act of violence just happens — it is caused, and that in turn causes more.

HBO's adaptation of the series maintained much of this violence critique in its earlier seasons, letting characters opine at length about the Mad King and Robert's Rebellion to provide the context viewers needed. But as we've plodded into the later seasons of Game of Thrones, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss seem to be abandoning this throughline. The shift is making a complex and thoughtful story into something of a boring, pedestrian gorefest.

[SPOILERS FOR A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE AND HBO'S GAME OF THRONES]

In both the books and the series, the domino effect of violence begetting violence started with the Mad King. He was crazy, hence the nickname. As the story goes, he wanted to burn everyone in his city to death, and he crisped a fair number of them before he was brought down. The specter of Mad King Aerys hangs over every plotline in A Song of Ice and Fire. His atrocities (and the hands he forced) set the stage, determining the world views and priorities of every major player.

When Cersei and Tyrion Lannister choose to defend King's Landing with the wild fire that once threatened to destroy it, our stomachs should clench. When Sansa Stark is viciously beaten in the Red Keep as a result of her father's political ineptitude, it should feel even more brutal to those who know that her uncle and grandfather were murdered by Aerys in the same spot. Their deaths were probably why Ned Stark ran from power and never developed a political mind in the first place. Every action is colored by the generation that came before.

That weight isn’t felt in the show, and nowhere is Benioff and Weiss' betrayal of this idea more clear than in the universally despised Dorne plot.

dorne HBO

Dornish society is written as a more gender-equitable alternative to the majority of the Seven Kingdoms — laws of succession treat men and women equally, and even highborn women are trained to fight —€”€” and Prince Doran serves as a counterpoint to the "kill anyone in my way" mindset of Cersei Lannister.

The Dornish royal family as written is also a case study in how specific acts of violence can have ripple effects through generations. Queen Elia Martell and her children were murdered by the Lannisters when the Mad King was overthrown, and Prince Oberyn goes to King's Landing looking for revenge — specifically against Tywin Lannister and Gregor Clegane, the people directly responsible for her death. When he fails, many of his daughters want to ignite a war with the Lannisters and assassinate Tommen Baratheon. Their plan is snuffed out by Doran, the only member of their family who straddles the generational divide between the Mad King and the current Baratheon-Lannister rule. He knows that it makes more sense to play along and find a Targaryen for one of his kids to marry than it does to ask his people to fight a doomed war in defense of the vague concepts of "vengeance" and "honor."

did ellaria even know elia? does it matter?

Doran is the rare Westerosi leader who values human life, and encourages the people in his family to do the same. We don't see this side of Doran on the show. Instead, we just see him killed, never having spoken a word of his subtle master plan to take the Iron Throne for his family. Ellaria Sand killed him, aided by Sand Snakes who are impossible to differentiate and who apparently have no qualms (not even a moment's hesitation!) over killing their uncle and cousin in cold blood.

We're asked to believe that the show's Ellaria is dedicated to avenging Elia and Oberyn — the former being a person she probably never met, and the latter, someone who would probably disapprove of all this kinslaying. There is simply no practical motivation here —€”€” just flashy, surprising murder. The showrunners have their fun with making the violence as big of a spectacle as possible, too.

In the books, when Ellaria Sand is handed the skull of The Mountain as a consolation for Oberyn's death, she uses it as a didactic device for the Sand Snakes — this is what revenge gets you, a useless skull that doesn't make anyone feel better.

This big change in the new seasons belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the books' take on violence. Many of the show's big violence set pieces — season five's climactic battle at Hardhome, the back alley showdown between Barristan Selmy and the Sons of the Harpy, Daenerys feeding her enemies to her dragons —€” aren't drawn from the text. Glamorized fight scenes like the Battle of Blackwater and the sack of Astapor are few and far between in the books (though admittedly, some specific acts of violence are markedly nastier). Silly action-movie sequences are just sprinkled over the story like confetti, for the sake of "good TV."

the new seasons fundamentally misunderstand the books' take on violence

These bonus "fire and blood" sequences are delivered to viewers at the expense of more nuanced storylines. Most significantly, Game of Thrones, so far, has shown nothing of Brienne of Tarth's story from the fourth book, A Feast for Crows. It's tangential to the main story, and short on action (except for the part where a chunk of her face gets bitten off!), but it's the thematic crux of the novel.

Its exclusion makes sense on the surface — Brienne spends her time on the hunt for the Stark sisters, plodding aimlessly through the middle of Westeros. But during this journey she meets former soldiers, impoverished innkeepers, and aimless men of all stripes. She serves as our only window into the wreckage that the War of the Five Kings wrought on civilians.

brienne

She runs into both of the big outlaw groups that are filling the region's power vacuum (the Tullys are holed up in their castle, pointlessly waving a defiant Stark banner). The law of the land has become violence and desperation, and Brienne can't stop noticing that everyone she meets seems "broken." Seeing the consequences of the war rewrites it in our memory —€” did Robb Stark really need to march south? Was it honestly just over his dumb dad?

Vulture's Nate Jones points out that the later books are "full of tangents, and the tone is ruminative and regretful —€” stuff that wouldn't work on TV, where forward momentum is the way to go."

it's like 'vanderpump rules' up in westeros

That's true, but Game of Thrones is barreling head over heels right now. Watching feels more like a race to get somewhere —€” to finish the episode's dozens of lightning-fast scenes, suck out their plot marrow, and debate who's ahead at the end of each weekly installment. It's like the fourth season of Vanderpump Rules up in Westeros, which makes it high in drama, but low in heart. Including Brienne's relatively slow-moving story might have given the show back some of that vital organ, rather than the mounds of viscera it already spills.

In perhaps the most telling moment of Brienne's journey, she meets Septon Meribald, a former soldier who delivers a winding monologue about how war destroys the lives of average men and turns them into heartless criminals. The passage is widely considered the best and most poignant writing that Martin has done for the series:

One day they look around and realize all their friends and kin are gone, that they are fighting beside strangers beneath a banner that they hardly recognize. They don't know where they are or how to get back home and the lord they're fighting for does not know their names, yet here he comes, shouting for them to form up, to make a line with their spears and scythes and sharpened hoes, to stand their ground. And the knights come down on them, faceless men clad all in steel, and the iron thunder of their charge seems to fill the world... And the man breaks.

Septon Meribald will make some sort of appearance in season six, so we may still hear some of this speech, but it's ridiculous to think the show will make time for Brienne's aimless adventure. She's already got Sansa, after all, and there's no evidence that Benioff and Weiss think there's anything valuable to be gleaned from nuance.

The showrunners also cut Lady Stoneheart, the undead version of Catelyn Stark, who serves as the book's most obvious critique of cyclical violence. She is misguided revenge incarnate — killing Freys and Lannisters who couldn't possibly have been involved in the Red Wedding, hanging crowd favorite Podrick Payne, and taking over and corrupting the Brotherhood Without Banners, a band of outlaws that had been doing their best to protect the common people of the Riverlands against Northern raiders and the Bloody Mummers. It's a sharp, hurtful example of how the personal, emotional "needs" of the powerful take precedent over the very lives of the people they rule.

break the wheel! yeah, okay!

Instead, as its main rebuke of violence, the show offers us a miserably cheesy speech from Daenerys, who intends to "break the wheel" of power that crushes "the people on the ground." Never mind that people start spontaneously slaughtering their neighbors in every city she sets foot in.

I'm still watching, but now I'm just chanting "fire and blood" and "Sansa, kill all men!" like I'm watching a bloodsport. I don't consider Game of Thrones much more than that anymore.


Learning the Game of Thrones theme on a futuristic keyboard