On Heel Turns & Character Arcs in Season 8 of Game of Thrones
by Luke Elliott, 5/14/19

As a longtime A Song of Ice and Fire fan (before the HBO show was even announced) this last episode (8x05) of Game of Thrones gutted me.

I tweeted the following after watching: 

@luminousluke: “Ugh. I’ve typed like ten different tweets up about my feelings right now, but keep deleting them... The wound is too fresh. Maybe tomorrow. #GOT

Two days later, and after some sober reflection, I hope I found some of the words I was missing. 

*SERIOUS GAME OF THRONES SPOILERS INCOMING* 

It’s genuinely heartbreaking that our beloved Dragon Queen killed all those innocent people. This is a character we’ve come to root for despite her flaws. She has always held to divine right to rule; however problematic the idea may be. She believes that her blood makes her better than everyone else. That she is the chosen one. But she’s grown too, freed slaves, cared for the smallfolk, and sought justice for wrongdoings against them. We watched her learn from past mistakes. 

But despite her growth, ultimately, it does make sense that that her arc leads her to burn King’s Landing. It’s the tragic end to her conqueror’s mindset. Khal Drogo promised her to lay waste to the people of Westeros in book/season 1 and, symbolically at least, I think her most fearsome dragon Drogon is Khal Drogo reborn. So again, it’s completely fitting that he fulfills his promise to her from season 1. Imagine Drogon is saying this to her:

So, I ultimately believe Dany will do something like this in A Dream of Spring, if we ever get that book from George (I hope we will). BUT, the show failed to sell that Dany was capable of burning innocent civilians alive for no real reason in this moment. As many others have rightfully pointed out, it feels horribly, laughably contrived. They really needed to show more steps toward madness.

Spencer Ellsworth makes the case well here, and I agree with him.

Like the firebombing of Dresden, the burning of King’s Landing should have felt like a war crime. One committed because a seemingly good person believed it was a necessary evil, done to win a righteous war. As presented, it was clearly a completely irrational act resulting in wanton destruction and mass murder committed after the battle was already won. David & Dan decided they didn’t want any doubt that Dany had done something evil. They left no room for nuance or the shades of gray that we’ve come to expect from this show. Perhaps they just aren’t capable of that sort of careful storytelling. I just don’t know.

Dany’s firebombing aside, it’s the circumstances of Jaime Lannister’s death that are the even more egregious. That’s not where his arc has been leading, not even close. He broke his oath and sacrificed his honor to save the people of King’s Landing from the Mad King, yet claims not to care about them to Tyrion? I call bullshit. And then he isn’t even given a moment of horror when seeing all his efforts undone around him. His growth across the 7 prior seasons led him far away from Cersei and the dark side of his personality and toward Brienne and the redemption she represents for him. Even Cersei saw this, and realized he was never coming back. That’s why she sent Bronn to kill him. She’d rather he die than be happy without her. 

To even remotely sell us on Jaime regressing, if set on it, the DDs should’ve been working him toward this monumental mistake all season. Have him mistreated by the northerners after the Battle of Winterfell. Maybe even have Brienne turn him down in favor of Tormund. We might buy a return to his sister’s side, then, however bitter that pill would be. Oh, and if you’re going to force that route, maybe also don’t have Bronn show up to threaten to kill him with a crossbow and reveal Cersei ordered it? And how about not in the exact same episode where Jaime decides to abandon everything he has worked towards, just to go and die with her? How dare she be sad when he’s bleeding! She ordered his death FFS.

A friend defending the show likened the sudden change in Dany to a “heel turn” in wrestling. He meant as a good thing, but that’s exactly what it felt like to me, and I think that’s a problem. I gave up watching wrestling a long time ago partly due to inexplicable heel turns. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it’s when a “good” character abruptly turns “bad.” Often this comes about when they just decide to hit another “good” character in the back with a steel chair in an out-of-the-blue betrayal, then turn to sneer at the crowd.

Wrestling fans forgive me if the above is an oversimplification, but I remember absolutely hating these moments even when I did watch as a kid. The connective tissue between villain and hero felt completely absent, as if the two were completely different people. Maybe we can forgive it in wrestling, where the point is to have fun by cheering on some muscly people fighting and witness the spectacle of cool shit.

So, if what you primarily want from GoT is dragons burning things and big battles and cool sword fights--then I get why many are still loving this season. It is delivering on the cool shit in spades. But that’s not what I love about this series, and I’m not alone. Sure, we all like the sword fights and dragons too, but we want them as a manifestation of a richer experience. Fans like me come for the careful, realistic, often tragic stories of these characters convincingly portrayed against a rich tapestry of world-building. And this story, unlike wrestling, is coming to an end. We will very likely never see Dany, Jaime, Jon Snow or any of the others on screen again. These episodes, for better or worse, are the show’s legacy.

So, yes, it hurts me to say this, but count me among those disappointed and angry. The writing this season feels rushed and sloppy, with broad messy strokes instead of the thoughtful artistry this immensely popular show deserved. It should have been a love-letter from the DDs to the story they owe so much (as the Russo Brothers did with Endgame). Instead, this feels like the DDs are running off to start their Star Wars movie and never want to look back. Maybe that’s not fair, but why else turn down the reported 10-episode season favored by both Martin and HBO?

One final thought: Stories are simultaneously on the surface silly, ephemeral things, and absolutely crucial elements of culture and society. ASOIAF is one huge story into which many of us invested so much of our time, between reading and rereading all the books, to listening/watching hundreds of hours of analysis, theory crafting, and in-depth discussions. My wife and I bonded over our shared love for the series when we first met. People have named their children after these characters. It truly matters to us that they do justice to the story we fell in love with.

So, please let us be angry. And know we all truly hope the next episode is a great one.

-Luke

PS. If you’d like to hear more of my thoughts about Game of Thrones, James and I had a wonderful time revisiting the first book and season of the show on Ink to Film!