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Paying their debts: Game of Thrones season six

Illustration by Olivia Rossi

HBO’s Game of Thrones is a massive cultural phenomenon. We all know this. We’ve seen the endless recaps, the ubiquitous Winter is Coming meme, the photoshopped pictures of political figures sitting the Iron Throne and so on. Even my Mum vaguely understands that Game of Thrones is well known for ‘tits and dragons’, and she consumes no television except for ABC news and My Kitchen Rules. As of 2014, Game of Thrones became HBO’s most watched TV show of all time, and with a steadily climbing viewership (ostensibly not including the droves of sea faring bandits who watch the show), GoT won’t be disappearing from the cultural sphere any time soon.

The question is: Does this god-tier status of cultural infamy affect the production of Game of Thrones in any way? At first glance, no. Showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have specifically stated they don’t directly listen to fan criticism. And it is doubtful that Benioff and Weiss could even begin to satisfy all of the shows fans if they deigned to listen to them. The show has so many subsets of fans; casual watchers, avid followers, fans of the show’s source material A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), people who film themselves watching the show in bars, the aforementioned sea-faring bandits. Game of Thrones’ showrunners have the monumental task of making the show work for each of these subsets. This isn’t to say Benioff and Weiss completely disregard their fans – surely they want the show to be popular – in fact they clearly consider all of them.

Hardcore fans of the A Song of Ice and Fire often complain of the show ‘dumbing down’ the plot of the books. It’s easy to see where this is true; storylines are cut (Aegon Targaryen) or streamlined (Dorne’s entire plot), characters are lost (Arienne Martell, Lady Stoneheart, Victarion Greyjoy) or combined (Sansa Stark and Jeyne Pool), and characters’ involvement diminishes (Doran Martell) or ends prematurely (also Doran Martell). While it’s impossible to state the true intention of the creative decisions in the show, many of these changes were likely due to the need to keep the show both engaging and well-paced for a majority of watchers. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a saga so expansive it has its own published encyclopedia. We may frown at the loss of a cool speech or intrigue from the books; but how many fans would rather see Game of Thrones slow to a crawling pace trying to incorporate every aspect of George R. R. Martin’s epic? Instead it’s something more crisply paced, riveting, and ultimately simpler. It isn’t as if the show is without scenes and references pulled straight from the books: the fight between Oberyn Martell and the Mountain in Season 4 occurs exactly as it is written, ex-maester Qyburn’s speech to Grand Maester Pycelle before the latter’s death is word for the word the speech given by Varys to Kevan Lannister in A Dance with Dragons – among other, smaller examples. Regardless of whether fans agree with every decision, all the showrunners can be accused of is adapting a story for television, and making needed sacrifices along the way.

Another factor in the evolving production of Game of Thrones is the fact that the show has long overtaken its source material. If Martin were to never finish ASOIAF, it would be the first major saga to begin in one medium and finish in another. Game of Thrones’ showrunners essentially have it in their power to dictate another man’s legacy. Does this, and should this, change the way the adaption is made? It depends who you ask. Naturally, its makes little sense for the showrunners – who are making a TV show – to be held accountable to fans of the books. But it doesn’t mean they won’t be.

Following the death of Shireen Baratheon in Season 5, David Benioff off handedly says, ‘When George first told us about [Shireen’s burning]…we were shocked’. No biggie, Martin has to tell the showrunners about book developments for the two series to essentially line up. But it was a biggie; it was a book spoiler. Five years have passed since Martin’s last book, and some fans lost it. Elio Garcia, owner of Westeros.org, who actually swore off Game of Thrones after Season 5, called Benioff ’s revelation ‘thoughtless’. Fans on the /r/asoiaf subreddit and Westeros.org forums called it ‘shitty’, ‘absolutely atrocious’ and ‘unprofessional’, with some denying the truth of it outright (‘What if this is exactly what GRRM planned all along?’ says one particularly far gone fan). So does Benioff have a duty to protect the sanctity of book spoilers? Yes, and no. Yes, because Game of Thrones is now part of the wider ASOIAF fandom, and no, because the showrunners are no one’s bitch (except maybe HBO’s). The show has already spoiled future book plot points, and I doubt Benioff ’s comment will hurt the sales of Martin’s next book. Still, many fans have dedicated twenty years to this story. All they want is new material from Martin, but it seems like they’ll have to make do with snippets from the producers.

Game of Thrones’ production quality has certainly improved – and unsurprisingly so, with the show’s Season 6 budget reaching $10 million per episode, up from $6 million in Season 1. The Season 6 episode ‘The Battle of The Bastards’ – featuring a full scale pitched battle, a CGI-giant, and arse-tighteningly tense action – is undoubtedly a technical marvel, especially for a TV show. But while ‘The Battle of the Bastards’ was a good hour of television, was it really a good hour of Game of Thrones? As much as I personally enjoyed the episode, lingering questions remain. Why did none of the Northerners flinch at seeing their liege lord Ramsay literally murder an innocent child and Eddard Stark’s last remaining son? Why have Sansa warn Jon not to fall into any of Ramsay’s traps only to have Jon instantly fall into one of Ramsay’s traps? Why did the Knights of the Vale save the day at exactly the most dramatic moment? I’ve already stated that Game of Thrones must be entertaining for the vast majority of us, and that’s ok, but Game of Thrones reached its cultural status in part because of its realism, and subversion of classic tropes. Shock value moments in Game of Thrones are not new, but will the show’s lasting legacy be as positive if it’s most climactic moments prioritise spectacle over substance? If the remaining seasons become predictable, it won’t just be the book fans souring on the plot.

Game of Thrones is rocketing towards its climactic finish with (sadly) only two seasons left. From relatively humble origins to a major cultural staple, it’s natural that more eyes watching means more criticism all round, and that its production will continually evolve in response (or otherwise). Issues aside, Game of Thrones is still one of the best and most consistently good TV shows around. It’s important to remember with any work, its creators are human, with their own interpretations and priorities, and that the act of simply not fucking it all up is admirable in its own right. If I was handed 100 million dollars a year to create a TV show, I think all I’d achieve is getting myself done for money laundering.

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Rachael Welling

The author Rachael Welling

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