This article containers spoilers from the most recent season of Game of Thrones.
As the most talked-about installment of scripted television ever on Twitter, episode three of Game of Thrones’ final season proved itself, despite the best efforts of its writers, to be too big to fail. From season 5 onwards – when Game of Thrones finally overtook its source material, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and became untethered from its foundation –the show did not simply decline but plummeted like a stone into interminable free-fall.
Right out of the gate Game of Thrones made its name with its refusal to compromise. It was more intricate, unashamedly geeky, gratuitously pornographic, and more epic in scale (as proven by the need for an elaborate map of the GoT universe in the first sequence), than anything television had seen before. It soon proved to be more brutal too: the beheading of Sean Bean’s character, Ned Stark, was a thrown gauntlet; by killing off its most distinguished star actor, the show let viewers know that no one in the Seven Kingdoms was safe from culling at the writers’ hands.
While Game of Thrones quickly gained a reputation for unpredictably killing major characters, Ned Stark’s death was compelling viewing not because of its unpredictability, but precisely because it was the logical conclusion of his situation. In a world of duplicitous politicians, he was doomed from the beginning by his resolute sense of honour. The show’s cutting edge or shocking approach was its refusal to rescue characters from circumstances in which death was the most plausible and realistic outcome.
Surprisingly though, few casualties were generated by last week’s long-awaited showdown, in which our heroes battled it out against the undead forces bent on expunging humanity from the face of the planet. Sure, the red shirts lined up to be slaughtered anonymously in their thousands, but no one among the main cast suffered worse than a concussion. We wererepeatedly teased with glimpses of characters swarmed on all sides by the zombie horde, only for the camera to cut away and return a few minutes later; unscathed and fighting valiantly it felt as if the almighty writers were smiling on our heroes this time. Despite his incompetence, even the snivelling Samwell Tarly, who contributed little to the effort except his tears, went unpunished.
Yes, Jorah Mormont fulfilled his mission and died as he lived: protecting the woman he loved but who would really prefer to just stay friends. And yes, Theon Greyjoy and Melisandre, having realised they were now superfluous to the remaining plot, dutifully committed themselves to pointless deaths. Yet there was never any sense that Westeros’A-listers were in any real danger. Game of Thrones began as a show that would not play favourites, would not compromise characters from the vicious rules of their world; eight seasons along, and the writers are bending over backwards to keep the likes of Greyworm and Gendry out of harm’s way.
To raise the stakes of fiction, the prospect of death must apply equally to everyone; and an arbitrary death is as unsatisfying as a character’s inexplicable survival of a fatal situation. Missandei’s off-screen capture and subsequent execution, for example, in the climax of the latest episode, feels hollow because we sense it to be plot fodder. She dies not because that was the organic outcome of her narrative, but because it fuels Daenerys’s rage and pushes her artificially in the direction of the real story. Her death reeks of a show that has become a corpse of its former self. And yet, like one of the undead weights that encroach on Westeros, Game of Thrones gropes relentlessly onwards, mauled and mutilated beyond recognition, an un-killable husk of the show it once was.