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Game of Thrones Has a Suspense Problem

Game of Thrones has always tried to find a balance between surprise and suspense. In season one, it perfected both a suspenseful multi-episode arc involving Ned Stark being captured for treason and the surprise plot twist of him actually being executed. From then on, the series has often relied on the chronic fear of main character death as its primary form of suspense. With suspense covered, the writers leaned into the surprise factor. For a while, it mostly worked. But as the seasons wore on, the ingrained anxiety of character death faded. Surprises kept popping up, but they didn’t have the kinds of twists needed to keep us engaged. And although season 8 started off feeling like a throwback to the early days, it’s managed to deteriorate rapidly. As many have noted, there just isn’t enough suspense to keep us interested anymore.

There’s a couple of reasons for this. First, there’s the obvious issues with rushed pacing. Squeezing what feels like practically two full 10-episode seasons’ worth of story into a single six episode season was never going to work. With such a limited amount of time, it’s impossible for storytelling that includes adequate build-up or payoff. There’s just no time for suspense. The Dany “Mad Queen” angle? A legitimately interesting idea. But shoving it in a few episodes? Completely absurd. (Note: There were seeds planted about the impending destruction of King’s Landing by Daenerys’s hand way early on. In season two, she visits the House of the Undying and has a vision of walking through a burnt down Great Hall in the Red Keep. I’ll give credit where credit is due.)

But it’s also because there’s been a betrayal in point of view.

Photo Credit: HBO

There’s an obvious core set of characters in Game of Thrones that act as our proxies. The A Song of Ice and Fire books are structured so each chapter has is told from a different character’s point of view. Of course, Game of Thrones the TV show doesn’t have narrators in the same way, but we do experience the world through a specific set of characters. The Stark kids are definitely point of view characters. So are Tyrion, Jaime, Cersei, and Daenerys. There are probably others, but I think it’s hard to argue that these aren’t the main ones. Suspense involves and uneven distribution of information: the audience needs to know something these characters don’t. Same with twists; these big surprises aren’t landing because we aren’t seeing them from our main point of view characters.The Red Wedding lands because we are just as surprised as the Starks. Ned’s beheading works because we genuinely believe that Joffrey will pardon Ned, just like all of our point of view characters believe. Surprise absolutely has to happen to them, because they are our eyes in the show.

But when we don’t understand the motivations of our main characters, when we’re not privy to what they’re planning, we just feel abandoned by our storytellers. As Game of Thrones has progressed, we’ve stopped getting fed the information we need. In the worst case, we’re even getting fed false information. It plays us the fool.

The most egregious example of this was in season 7 with the Arya/Sansa/Littlefinger murder plot. We were led to believe that Arya and Sansa were at odds and that there was real tension between them, but actually they were putting on a show for Littlefinger. The problem with this is that Arya and Sansa are our point-of-view characters. Littlefinger is not. We should have known about Arya and Sansa planning this in order to build suspense for the eventual Littlefinger execution. Instead, we just got the quick moment of surprise when we realize they were faking and had planned this to kill Littlefinger. It’s such a cheap “gotcha,” especially when seeing Arya and Sansa pull the wool over Littlefinger’s eyes would have been so insanely rewarding. Since we didn’t have any hints that Arya and Sansa were planning something, the characters we’re supposed to know best, it makes the audience feel stupid. It treats the audience like we aren’t smart enough to understand a plot or scheme, and that we would actually prefer to be blindly surprised by events than to experience suspense and legitimate plot build-up and payoff. We were robbed of suspense for the sake of mediocre surprise.

Photo Credit: HBO

I bring up this instance that happened last season because there have been multiple parallels of similar applications of surprise and suspense in season eight as well. “The Last of the Starks” was rife with the confusion between surprise and suspense to the point where I’d argue that it’s one of the weakest episodes of the series. Daenerys getting attacked on her way to King’s landing by Euron Greyjoy and the Golden Fleet was an utter mess because it was only meant to be a surprise (not to mention the actual clunkiness with execution. So Dany really didn’t see the ships? She didn’t fly up and around to burn down as many ships as possible? But I digress.). There was zero effort involved with building suspense or anticipation or excitement from the audience. We got no background information leading up to the attack. This might have made sense if Euron was working in isolation as a non-point-of-view character, but he’s not. He’s working with Cersei. Could we not have had a scene discussing the giant dragon-killing crossbows that Qyburn (presumably) designed? We could have been felt the suspense the moment we saw the crossbows and that suspense would have made the emotional wallop of the attack that much more intense. When we don’t get hints about what is going to happen, it feels like it’s just a random string of events. We don’t need play by plays–but we need logic. And it feels like the audience isn’t being respected.

We’ve been really left in the dark about what Cersei is has been planning this entire season and it leads to an uneven balance between the two sides that are fighting for the Iron Throne. It dilutes the conflict, making it feel like simple good versus evil (though with Daenerys ready to burn King’s Landing down, I guess it’ll be three factions, one good and two evil). It removes nuance from the characters since we don’t know the inner working of their decision making process.

Photo Credit: HBO

It’s not the only instance in “The Last of the Starks” where the writers pick cheap surprises over compelling suspense. There are some obvious parallels between Missandei’s death and Ned’s death in season one. As I mentioned earlier, Ned’s execution has lots of suspense. It’s was long process by late seasons standards. He’s captured in episode 7 and executed at the end of episode 9. And of course, there’s impressive plot-twisting surprise here since he’s not pardoned, which is what Joffery promised. On the other side of the spectrum, the scene with Missandei is missing the multiple episode suspense (we don’t even know why or how she was captured, unlike with Ned) and the twist. There’s no reason to believe Cersei won’t kill her. And maybe it’s not fair to compare the best dramatic moment which involved killing off the quasi-protagonist of the series with killing off a supporting character, but that ties back to what I said in my last review: it wasn’t actually about Missandei (Over and over it’s not about who is involved in the action, just the action itself, case in point: Arya’s point of view is completely absent in the scene where she kills the Night King. She’s just a plot point. So is Missandei. But I’ll get to Arya later.), it was just about pushing Daenerys towards her Mad Queen endgame. It’s devoid of suspense, devoid of emotion, and it fails to make us care.

Photo Credit: HBO

When Jaime leaves Winterfell to go to King’s Landing, allegedly to help Cersei, there’s a clear breakdown (given that we take what he says at face value,) in what kind of character he is supposed to be. And therein lies the problem–if he is actually just going to help Cersei it doesn’t make sense with his character development or his arc. If he’s just trying to make it easier for Brienne to accept his leaving, we need more to understand why it’s happening. Jaime is a main character; he’s a point-of-view character. We need to see him deliberate (and not just stare into a fire) and understand why he is leaving so we’ll know something either Jaime or Brienne don’t know. That’s builds suspense. The audience knowing more than some of the characters on the show is exactly what builds tension. In this instance we know less than the characters. There’s no opportunity for suspense. So it’s confusing, it’s boring, it’s it leads us to question everything we know about characters we’ve known for multiple seasons.

The only place Game of Thrones has been able to maintain suspense is in the reveal of Jon Snow’s true parentage. This is especially the case since the secret has spread so that only Tyrion and Varys are aware of everyone who’s in on the truth. This is an excellent example of how to build suspense since there are so many instances of uneven information distribution, and we can track exactly who knows what (and who went back on their promises). Now we get to wait and bask in the anticipation of finding out how and when all of this information is going to come out. And that’s been sorely missing for some time now. It’s clear that the genre of Game of Thrones shifted from one of political intrigue set in a fantastical quasi-medieval society to a straight up action/adventure show. Unfortunately, that means we have a lot more unearned “epic” moments, like dragons being shot out of the air, instead of the subtlety and intricate plotting that we used to expect.

Photo Credit: HBO

Speaking of epic moments, let’s go back to when Arya killed The Night King. A lot of people complained that we had very little build up for this. They’re right! Although I don’t have a problem with the big picture of how it all played out, there definitely could have been a lot more lead up to Arya being The Night King slayer. And what’s funny is that just the smallest amount of buildup and point-of-view inclusion would have really, number one, ramped up the stakes and anticipation, and number two, also provided more clarity about the actual logistics of what was happening. All it would have taken is a quick scene of Arya seeing the White Walkers or The Night King approaching Bran. That’s all it would have taken to lend a little bit of credibility. We didn’t have to see the entire attack from her point of view (though that would have been a cool option as well), but just seeing her ramp up to go do this huge thing would have provided so much more weight to the event. The brief moment when she’s runs off after talking to Melisandre is supposed to serve this purpose, but it’s too opaque and it glosses over the actual mechanics of the attack. It’s not the worst way it could have played out, but it’s all surprise and no suspense. It’s the easy way out. It’s lazy and it feels like checking off boxes so we can barrel to an end.

Taking the focus away from the viewpoint of our key players and leaving the audience in the dark about why events are happening undermines the premise of the entire series. And judging by the trailer for the penultimate episode of the series, Game of Thrones isn’t planning on switching course to something more satisfying, instead filling another 80 minutes with bombastic battle scenes and dumbed down dialogue (seriously the cast is amazing and doing so much with what they have to work with, they deserve better).

It’s a pessimistic take and I seriously hope I’m wrong. There’s nothing I want more than for Game of Thrones to redeem its reputation. So we’ll watch and wait, in anticipation. At least we have that for suspense.

Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.

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