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‘Game of Thrones’ Has a Stabbing Problem

The HBO show based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has gained a notorious reputation over the years. Game of Thrones proudly celebrates how dangerous its universe can be. “George R. R. Martin murders your favorite characters” says the meme. It’s made for an unpredictable and exciting show. Ned Stark, the central hero of Season 1 was executed by his enemies. The main villain, Tywin Lannister is lying in a grave in a Sept in King’s Landing. His obnoxious grandson King Joffrey is not too far away in a grave of his own.

Unfortunately, as the seasons have worn on, Game of Thrones has come off less and less convincing. A lot of the problem has been caused by George R. R. Martin’s own unpredictable production on his books. The sixth book The Winds of Winter is now years past schedule. It will not be finished until after this season –  and hopefully before Season 7. The first season of Game of Thrones was written as a nearly scene for scene adaptation of the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire. But by later seasons it was obvious the novels would never be written fast enough to keep pace with the show. We are now in a situation most commonly seen in anime where the adaptation has overtaken the source materials. That was never the plan, but the show must hastily take over with its own content to finish GRRM’s half-complete epic.

Game of Thrones has shifted pace in Season 6 towards moving forward to its own original ending. It is the first season to be completely the creation of David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. But as we approach the end, Game of Thrones feels like it has to simplify itself to get there. The complex political maneuvering that once was the bread and butter of this show has disappeared to make room for a single trick:  stabbing.

Let’s be clear, this article is not anti-stabbing. Stabbing has accomplished a great deal for this show. It has allowed the older generation that started the War of the Five Kings to be replaced by younger, more inexperienced players who have made rookie mistakes. Those mistakes have defined the current seasons. Cersei unleashed the Faith Militant, Jon was betrayed by his so-called Brothers, Danaerys married a moron. The threat of stabbing keeps the show gritty and exciting. But stabbing cannot be the only trick. This is Game of Thrones, not Game of Stabs.

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In the first four episodes of Season 6 stabbing has been the prime narrative mover. This is a war show, so basically what everybody does is ultimately about stabbing people or not being stabbed themselves. But Game of Thrones has found a way to overuse surprise stabbings to the point that they are no longer a surprise. Only Book Readers could have ever seen the Red Wedding coming, but everybody knew on Sunday that Osha was going to get a knife to her throat.

Take two scenes in episodes 1 and 2. They’re identical situations with identical outcomes. The ruling families of the North and Dorne respectively are having a supposedly peaceful moment. The character not in power embraces the character in power. Then the ruler is stabbed. Boom, surprise! Virtually instantly, the Sand Snakes take over Dorne, Ramsay takes over Winterfell. Actually “virtually instantly”? It was an instant coup with a 100% success rate. Beat by beat the narrative moves are exactly the same and have the same problems of believably.

What makes the stabbings in Season 6 so off-putting is that they seem to be used in the show as pure Level Ups. Nobody in Winterfell has any complaints about serving Ramsay Snow Bolton, a man who everybody believes is completely insane. Just as in Dorne has an objection against their rightful rulers being murdered. Nobody in the North has any reason to follow Ramsay’s orders at all, he’s illegitimate and unlikable by every standard, yet he has a massive army full of loyal men. If anything he gained allies after murdering his father and compromising his own legitimacy problem further. The Sand Snakes legally have as much right to rule Dorne as Hot Pie, yet Doran’s former guards seem to follow their orders without question. On Sunday, Dany set fire to the Great Khals of the Dothraki and instantly converted an entire ethnicity to her side. Technically this was not a stabbing in the traditional sense, but it still follows the rules of the device. Either nobody was loyal to the government of the Dothraki or Emilia Clarke’s boobs were a really compelling argument.

There is another motive to all the stabbing in Game of Thrones:  thinning the heard. Osha’s death, last Sunday, is a cynical case of this. She became a convenient victim to the Great White Shark, Ramsay Bolton. His psychopathy became tiresome about three seasons ago, but the showrunners must have thought the audience needed a reminder that Ramsay is evil. Really, really evil. The other reason is that they had nothing further for Osha to do and they had to get rid of her somehow. You can see a similar motive around killing off Barristan Selmy last year, whose greater parts in the books were abridged so heavily he got stabbed to death by minor nameless goons.

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The problem is that the “shocking surprise” of these stabbings are hardly shocking anymore. At this point, Ramsay scenes are more surprising when he isn’t stabbing or raping or sicking dogs on somebody. People accuse Ramsay of being an evil Mary Sue, since he has constantly won at every turn. In reality, Ramsay has been so successful because he’s good at stabbing characters, and D&D have a lot of characters to stab. He’s still a pointy device, no longer a real person. Osha had no particular task to play any longer, so let Ramsay eat her. Compare to Robb Stark, who was planning a new campaign and naming his unborn son just before getting stabbed. Killing that character is shocking. Killing Roose Bolton, who did not have much planned that afternoon anyway? Whatever. The show has a spare Bolton.

“But hey, Jon Snow just got stabbed at the end of last Season! That was a huge surprise!” Yes, it was. Only Jon got better. It kind of undercuts the “danger” of Game of Thrones when a character too important to kill off turns out to actually be too important to kill off. Do not expect King Tommen to have any witches to resurrect him when he is inevitably stabbed by somebody.

Perhaps this stabbing problem is just inevitable as the story reaches its third act. A lot of the excitement of Game of Thrones comes from having no idea where the story is going. But by this point the pieces have been pruned to the point that a shape is starting to form. In Season 6 we can see four major conflicts:  Jon vs. Ramsay, Cersei vs. the Faith Militant, Danaerys vs. the slavers, and whatever is going on in the Iron Islands. The Iron Islanders are now a device to get a fleet to Danaerys so she can reach Westeros in Seasons 7 and 8. She’ll arrive just in time to sic her dragons on those White Walkers, big climax. Expect the ending to come in 2018. As things grow more predictable you can see a few loose ends that are not going to fit. Prince Doran had his entire role in the books torn out, he did not fit. Thu,s he’s stabbed.

But even as the show reaches its conclusion, it should learn to be more careful with the stabbing. A lot of the richness of Game of Thrones come not just from how anybody can be stabbed but how diverse and fascinating its cast is. Once you stab too many characters you end up with situations like how the Red Keep lately feels like it is only populated by half a dozen ministers bickering around a table. Dorne feels like it is not just ruled by the Sand Snakes, but that the Sand Snakes are the only people in the entire country. Meereen is down to four people. Maybe Osha had no further role to play, but it might have been worth it to think of one. If only just to give Jon and his crew somebody different to talk to. Politics has compromise, awkward alliances, twists, and betrayals. That’s interesting. Just killing characters to kill characters is not.

War is Hell, medieval war is probably even worse. But people actually survived those wars, you know. When everybody is dead, you’re left with a small cast, who can only make a few predictable actions. Every time the show stabs another character, Game of Thrones loses another piece of its allure.


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