This piece contains spoilers for those who haven’t watched ‘Game Of Thrones’


Look at that image above. Isn’t it amazing? Don’t the possibilities of that single shot—of two men clutching swords and in armour, facing off on a stairway in a crumbling palace, while a gigantic dragon flies overhead—fill you with awe? This single frame from the penultimate episode of season 8 of Game Of Thrones (GoT) epitomizes all that people love about high fantasy, and it goes beyond swords and dragons. It’s the stories that such a picture tells, the mysteries it evokes. How did these two men get here? Who’s the good guy? What’s the dragon doing? (Just look at that dragon!!) Why is the palace crumbling? What’s this all about?

If only GoT could come up with credible answers. The show, based on G.R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire (Asoiaf) books, has been special from its very first episode, back in 2011. Following the spirit—and, for a while, the letter—of the books, it has presented a fantasy narrative that imparted a degree of hard reality to the usual tropes of the bildungsroman and the quest. It delighted in slowly setting the scene, presenting heroes with feet of clay, schemers with real motives, villains that are flawed but human.

In its first five seasons, where the show had the books to draw from, the pacing was exquisite, slowly setting up shocking denouements that sometimes left viewers in tears, but always left them gasping for more. Since it overshot the books—Martin is yet to finish his final two series instalments, Winds Of Winter and A Dream Of Spring—show writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss seem to have been in a rush to finish. Their budgets have increased year on year, the visuals have become more stunning, and the direction has remained peerless.

But the storytelling has nosedived, and the gratuitous dragon flambé of King’s Landing in season 8, episode 5 by one of the show’s erstwhile “heroes", Dænerys Targaryen, is a case in point. Why did she do it? Did her character arc merit this? Even if it made narrative sense for her to behave in this way, why didn’t the show take the trouble to lead up to it?

Benioff and Weiss’ replies, in various behind-the-scenes videos, are increasingly evasive, and hilarious. Oh, the sudden killing of one of Dænerys’ dragons? That’s because she forgot about the ships lying in wait to ambush her. That’s literally two scenes after she has been discussing the possibility of said fleet lying in ambush. And that’s just the main plot.

What has made GoT such a joy to watch are the secondary characters, men and women with lives and motives of their own, ones that shape and subvert the main narratives of the heroes and villains. In the slow-motion narrative wreck of the past-two-and-a-half seasons, these characters, like the eunuch “master of whispers" Lord Varys, have either fallen silent, or been reduced to spouting cock-and-balls jokes.

Make no mistake, Martin’s world building and sprawling plot was always going to be impossible for the show to recreate. The show’s idiotic pirate king Euron Greyjoy, for instance, is a major supernatural antagonist in the books.The books have no Night King. And the books were never just about a “game of thrones", but about a climate-driven existential threat. And yes, Dænerys will, in all likelihood, torch King’s Landing in the books as well. But, then, Martin will take care to prepare the narrative ground.

He once famously said that Asoiaf is about “the human heart at war with itself". Right now, we have a show that’s at war with the world and characters it so painstakingly built.

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