In its first three seasons, Game of Thrones won critical acclaim and a massive fan base for its ambitious fusion of fantasy and realism. Westeros, the world of Thrones, is endowed with the conventional features of the genre: formidable sorcery, throngs of magical creatures (dragons included!), and magnificent scenery that makes the audience feel delightfully small. The realism, rare in the medieval-fantasy genre, comes in the form of Thrones’s nuanced characters. None of the heroes are saints, and most of the villains have moments of compassion.
Take Queen Cersei Lannister (officially Cersei Baratheon, she defiantly uses her maiden name). Her Season 1 scheme to murder her husband, King Robert Baratheon, and seat her son Joffrey on the Iron Throne—which rules over Westeros’s Seven Kingdoms—ignites a series of succession wars and marks her as a major villain. Her incestuous affair with her brother Jaime—who is, unbeknownst to Robert, the father of Joffrey and Cersei’s other children—is appalling. But the cunning and lecherous queen finds some redemption in her love for her children, which never fades, even when it goes unreciprocated and entails heavy sacrifice.
Cersei’s love becomes a liability after the sadistic King Joffrey is murdered by political enemies. Her drive to secure the Lannister family’s power and to protect her surviving children, King Tommen and Princess Myrcella, becomes a paranoid obsession. She aggrandizes her own power—which is easy enough, as King Tommen is naïve, tractable, and preoccupied with his adolescence—and makes a series of rash decisions in her capacity as Queen Regent.
In “The Winds of Winter,” the finale to Season 6 of Thrones, Cersei’s greatest blunder—permitting a band of religious devotees called the Sparrows to form a “Faith Militant” army in exchange for supporting Tommen’s claim to the Iron Throne—has come to a head. The Sparrows proved themselves to be conscientious fanatics and immune to the allure of Cersei’s power. Not only did they investigate the queen for adultery and (in Season 5’s finale) dragged her naked through the streets in a public “Walk of Atonement” for her sins, but they are now prepared to try to convict her for the murder of King Robert.
Exciting though “Winds” was, the drama was diluted by a series of plot gaps. And it was no anomaly in this respect. Since season five, when the story had to go beyond the George R.R. Martin series on which it is based, showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have disregarded the basic virtue that made the show a success—a commitment to storytelling and characterization. They paid little price for their oversights. If Thrones delivers a technical spectacle featuring familiar characters and high-octane drama, viewers happily overlook sloppy plotting and imbalanced character development.
But if these problems continue to fester, they threaten to wreck the legacy of Thrones—as a political drama built on realistic plotting and three-dimensional characters—when the show concludes in 2018.
The opening scenes of “Winds” depict Cersei standing out on her palace balcony and staring at the Sept of Baelor, the giant marble dome where she is to be tried for treason by the Sparrows. In the main chamber of the Sept, we see Cersei’s political enemies, especially the charismatic and seductive young queen, Margaery Tyrell (wife to King Tommen and Cersei’s rival for his confidence and affection), anticipating her demise.
The contrast between Cersei’s eyes, full of exhaustion, fear and sadness, and her face, tight with determination, evokes her past. She knows that her confession of adultery and Walk of Atonement are, in this feudal society, discreditable for a woman like her; yet she is still determined to seize power. And she hungers for revenge. If violence and terror are necessary for the achievement of lasting power, all the better.
The drama of the episode’s first act, in which Cersei’s plan to incinerate the Sept and its unfortunate inhabitants takes shape, is magnified by the background music—an unsettlingly minimalist tune, performed mostly with a single instrument (alternating piano, cello, and violin solos) and set in an ominous minor key. Bursts of organ accompany the major steps in Cersei’s plan, such as the murder of Lancel Lannister (Cersei’s cousin, who helped her murder King Robert but has now defected to the Sparrows) and the lighting of wild fire beneath the Sept.
By episode’s end, Cersei is crowned Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, to the tune of “The Rains of Castamere,” House Lannister’s menacing theme. Seated atop the Iron Throne, she wears the same conflicted expression from her opening scene.
The moment is spoiled by a series of lingering questions. How did Cersei wind up on the Iron Throne by episode’s end? Neither the show—nor the medieval norms from which the world of Westeros derives—give us any reason to think that a monarch is succeeded by his spouse in the event that he has no surviving children or siblings. If Cersei took the throne through force, where did she find enough soldiers to overcome the City Watch (who are now pledged to the Sparrows)?
The sloppiness of the writing is even more evident in Winterfell, the ancestral seat of House Stark, lords of the North (one of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros). Here Jon Snow’s guilty dream to become Lord of Winterfell is realized. True, Jon appears to be the only living son of Ned Stark, the beloved Lord of Winterfell who was murdered by Joffrey. And none could deny his gallantry in the second Battle of Winterfell, where armies under his command liberated the castle from the Boltons (who usurped the Starks as lords of the North). But Jon is also a bastard.
The lowly status conferred on bastards in Westeros is not of merely pedantic interest; it is central to Jon’s character development. Yet in Winds, we see dozens of Northern lords disregard the claims of Winterfell’s trueborn heir-apparent (Sansa Stark, whose brothers are dead or presumed dead) to unanimously nominate a bastard—who is, I fear not coincidentally, a fan favorite—as their lord.
Thrones’ problem of inconsistent characterization reached new levels of disorder in “The Winds of Winter.” The worst offender in this regard was Davos Seaworth. This loyal and maudlin soldier was defined by his service to and love for Stannis Baratheon, the lawful heir to the Iron Throne following Robert Baratheon’s death. Stannis prudently cultivated Davos’s favor with a series of offices and appointments, and came to regard the ex-smuggler more or less as a member of the royal family; his sweet and precocious daughter Shireen saw Davos as her closest friend.
Yet throughout this season, Davos showed no interest in—much less anguish over—Stannis’s death in the first Battle of Winterfell. Weeks to months after the battle, Davos spoke about it as a contemporary military historian might speak about the Battle of Vimy Ridge. And he made no inquiry into the fate of Shireen, who taught the ex-Smuggler to read in some of the kindest and most amiable television scenes in recent memory. This episodes-long bout of indifference makes Davos’s surge of outrage in “Winds,” upon discovering that the “Red Witch” Melisandre burned Shireen alive to win divine favor for Stannis’s war effort, look like a cheap and spontaneous ploy for a dramatic confrontation.
These sort of problems have plagued the last couple seasons of Thrones. Having exhausted the content of George R.R. Martin’s books (at least two of which remain to be written), Thrones had to create its own story. This is a difficult task, but one within the scope of the talented showrunners.
But the story Weiss and Benioff gave us is a pale imitation of Martin’s books, and of the show’s first few seasons. The showrunners have neglected the basic norms of Westeros. They have failed to scrutinize their scripts for even the most egregious plot holes—a failure that, in light of Thrones’s ever-ballooning budget, could be reasonably attributed to indolence or indifference. And though Weiss and Benioff deserve renown for bringing a world to life, they have populated it with characters of implausible and inconsistent motivations.
Fans and critics seem unconcerned with these flaws. They apparently believe that choreography—Thrones’s cast, music, and inimitable special effects—trumps storytelling, if it doesn’t make it outright superfluous. Who cares about the odd plot hole, so long as the tension does not slacken?
Weiss and Benioff should care, because in the long run, storytelling leaves a stronger impression than technology. If Thrones wants to make a deeper and more permanent mark on television, the showrunners should confront these problems and prevent them from recurring, even if this means hiring more writers and relaxing some of their control over the plot. They will only do this with a prompt—one that fans and critics can provide if they avert their eyes from the technical spectacle to give Thrones the same sustained, skeptical criticism that is applied to more pedestrian TV dramas.
Matt Cockerill is a lawyer and freelance writer from Chicago.