Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 5: A Discourse on Communication & Storytelling | Part I
“The poet must stir souls, not nurture idolaters.“ — Andrei Tarkovsky
I feel compelled to talk about one of the most controversial episodes of Game of Thrones. The reason I feel drawn to speak is twofold, because I am an artist and I love Art. It is my passion and my life’s work, and I am most particularly passionate about the Art of Cinema, which includes series and television shows. Entertainment, for the lack of a better word, although it is so much deeper than that word implies. It is my desire to see Art thrive in our culture, and more importantly I want to see our culture thrive because of its Art.
For this reason I would like to draw a valuable and crucial lesson from what has happened with HBO’s Game of Thrones and Weiss and Benioff’s series. I will not be addressing the story through technical criticism. I believe there are people more qualified than I to address those issues as I am not a storyteller (in the traditional sense) or screenwriter, so I will not be addressing story structure and development. What I will be focusing on is communication and storytelling themselves as well as the fundamental worldview that has poisoned this series and why the finale was false in every sense of the word, and did not ring true in most of our hearts.
I will begin by asking you, my readers,
How do we tell stories?
Again, this is not about story structure and mechanics, but I’m talking about the very act of telling stories, which is, at its essence, communication. So in other words, I am asking, how do we communicate? There are multiple ways in which we communicate, but I want us to consider the very essence of communication and the how and why it is done. I am communicating to you right now through this blog post by arranging commonly understood words (English language) in a specific manner (grammar and syntax) through which I am communicating ideas. I am communicating for the purpose of transferring information that exists in my mind to your mind, desiring that there would be understanding between us. I would not start speaking to you, an English speaker, in another language not known between us and neither would I suddenly abandon sentence structure — the jumped white over rabbit box the — that is nonsense, is it not? It would be pointless and worthless to communicate with you in any other way than by commonly understood rules and structures of communication that exist between us. So, communication’s goal is understanding, we communicate to be heard. Communication is a forward moving action. We don’t want to stagnate or regress, but to progress in deeper knowledge and establish a connection between us.
Now considering we are talking about a television series, let us lay out the commonly understood structures of communication through that medium:
- Language, through firstly the written, then secondly, spoken (by actors) word.
- Visuals which include: Composition (i.e. how a shot is framed) — What is actually in the frame (what is shown to us as the audience vs what is NOT shown to us), and Scene transitions (i.e. editing).
With these fundamental elements is a story told through the moving pictures. Now if you will notice, storytelling through the Cinematic Arts is significantly more complex than communication done simply through words alone or images alone. There are layers and layers and layers of text and subtext through word, actor performance, sound, music, imagery, etc. It is mindbogglingly complex, yet at its core it is still working towards that very simple (though not easy) goal as any other form of communication, which is understanding.
Why do we want to be understood?
We desire understanding because we hold a conviction that whatever it is we are communicating will be beneficial and/or necessary for the one hearing in order that something may be accomplished. Whether we are communicating something evil, “I hate you.” or something good, “I love you.”, whether positively or negatively, we are trying to give to our fellow person something that person can then take, process, and react to. We communicate at work to accomplish tasks. We communicate with our loved ones to develop deeper connections. We communicate from our emotional needs. We communicate in order to learn. There is an endless amount of reasons why we are communicating, but they all are done for that one goal — understanding which produces a desired reaction and achieves a purpose.
Storytelling, then, as a means of communication, is being told for a reason. It is communicating information and ideas that it might be understood by its audience and then provoke a reaction from said audience. We do not communicate from the vacuum or into the vacuum. We do not tell stories from the vacuum or into the vacuum. Therefore, story has meaning.
With this understanding, then, we now see that the fundamental elements of storytelling that I laid out above all have meaning. In every nuance of an actor’s performance, in the arrangement of words, in the notes of the music, in every aspect of a framed image, all these variables contain layers and layers of meaning. You cannot escape it. You are bombarded by it by every moving moment. The storyteller is speaking, and we the audience are listening.
Then we react.
Now, I am not going to go into the psychological and philosophical complexities of actually communicating successfully in any given situation, because we know that our perceptions play a key role in it. How you perceive the world is different than how I perceive the world, and so there are, unfortunately, so many ways in which communication can break down between us because of subjective experience. And if there is a communication medium that is very much made up of subjective experience, it is that of Art and Story. So, I am not going to go into the nuances because I want to focus on analyzing the literal communication structure of the Game of Thrones Season 8 episode 5 and lay out a case for its utter failure at communication which follows in its failure of story which then follows to its failure of being meaningful Art in any way at all.
For the sake of time, yours and mine, I am only going to focus on Daenerys’ character and how she was treated in this episode because she is probably the most crucial point, being one of the main characters after all. In the episode we see her fully succumb to her Targaryen blood, going full “Mad King”, as she takes out all her rage and sense of betrayal in not being loved by the people of Westeros on the inhabitants of King’s Landing, laying waste to all the innocent people through fire and blood.
Now, Weiss and Benioff, as well as many Game of Thrones fans, say that this was inevitable, that Daenerys was always going down this route from the beginning, but the argument I am making is that that is just not true. At the very least this fact was not communicated to us successfully through the 7 seasons we have been watching, and I shall make my case as follows by using two scenes (for the sake of brevity) which outright contradicts this character conclusion.
Season 1 finale Episode 10 Fire and Blood
You know the moment I am going to bring up very well, that powerful and moving climax when Daenerys steps into her husband’s pyre and comes out with three newborn dragons. She is Daenerys the Unburnt, Mother of Dragons.
Why was this scene communicated to us as part of the story?
Remember as I just laid out above about the fundamental elements of storytelling, i.e. word, imagery, sound, music, etc — each element is strung and woven together for a purpose. What is this scene’s purpose?
I am going to rewind time back to this moment, we yet do not know what is going to come next in this story, but we are solely focusing on how this finale made us feel. How we reacted to what it was communicating. Of course, it makes sense, does it not, to study this finale within the context of what had come before within the first season? We can’t understand the end of the sentence unless we know the beginning. We must listen to the beginning, middle, and end of said communication because if we stop in the middle of our listening, we will be missing crucial information and communication will break down. There would be no understanding, no meaning, and therefore nothing gained.
We have now just established, then, how we understand.
Context is how all elements are arranged in conjunction and relation with each other so as to convey meaning. You cannot just focus on one element, pick out one word in a sentence, pick out one scene, you need all the elements in order to effectively communicate and achieved your desire goal of understanding.
Okay, so what is this scene’s context?
We were introduced to Daernerys and her brother as the last surviving members of House Targaryen (or so we thought at this time). They have been exiled because of Robert’s Rebellion which overthrew the Mad King from the Iron Throne. So essentially, our protagonist starts out in a very low station. She is the “underdog”, and it is extremely low, as her brother is vicious and cruel towards her and she is treated no better than cattle to be sold off. Viserys makes a deal with Khal Drogo as means of gaining an army to take back the throne, and Daenerys is given to him marriage. Being Khal Drogo’s wife certainly doesn’t make our heroine’s life any better as she is forced in a traumatic sexual encounter with her new husband and she is miserable through the strain of travel, and there really isn’t any sign that Khal Drogo even cares about Daenerys and her brother’s purpose of regaining what they had lost. Yet as the story progresses, we see Daenerys begin to work her way up. She learns to communicate with her husband and they even end up falling love, she gets pregnant (which culturally speaking is one of the highest and noblest functions for women), and she becomes empowered, able to stand up to Viserys and his cruelty. Our heroine finds her voice. She even successfully eats a horse’s heart, which for the Dothraki is an honorable feat and promises great things for her unborn child. Even at some point Drogo gets rid of her brother, so she is freed from his lifelong abuse. Things are looking up as Daenerys finds herself in an honorable and secure station in life. However, it isn’t long before calamity strikes again when Drogo becomes sick from an infected wound. Daenerys puts her trust in a slave woman captured by the Dothraki to try and help her husband, but things go from the frying pan into the fire when the woman betrays Daenerys using blood magic and is responsible for both the death of Drogo and their child.
Now rewinding back again, we were also introduced to Daenery’s dragon eggs which were given to her as a wedding gift at the beginning of her story. Dragons no longer exist, if they even did exist, so they are more ceremonial than real. However, Daenerys is drawn to these eggs, which seem to be inert stones, because of her Targaryen blood. She sees something within these eggs that encourages her to press on, to remember who she is. They represent hope for our heroine. And this story element has stayed with us through the entire season. It is only now, at the finale, though, that we see their true significance when in her despair, Daenerys takes her dragon eggs and sets fire to her dead husband, and then steps into the fire herself.
The next morning she is Mother of Dragons.
The reason I took the time to outline the events of the plot was to show you how the elements built on one another. How did they make you feel? How did you react to them? What did this story as laid out through words, Emilia Clarke’s acting, imagery, composition, sound, and music communicate to you? What did it mean? Did we not feel triumphant? Did we not feel wonder and hope? Did not all those elements strung together express suffering, perseverance, and transcendence? Did we not empathize deeply with Daenerys and her struggles? Did we not weep with her? Did we not cheer with her? I mean just look at our pop culture surrounding Game of Thrones — the endless amount of merchandise with “The Mother of Dragons” on it and what “Khaleesi” meant to us as fans. (We even named our children “Khaleesi” and “Daenerys”!) Why? What did her story fundamentally move within us that we reacted in such an ardent way? If we were supposed to understand from the beginning that she was only a psychotic murderer, then why did she inspire such affection within us? Did we not instead fall in love with a strong and deep feeling woman who held onto a dream and persevered through some of the worst possible atrocities in order to realize that dream in a more profound way than she could have possibly imagined?
If Daenerys was always destined to be the series’ tragic villain, then why did we fall in love with her as the series’ savior?
Season 5 Episode 8 Hardhome
For a non-book scene, this was such an excellently written and performed scene. I loved watching it so much. It was the meeting we were all waiting to have happen. However, we must once again consider the context. At this point of the story we have shifted to Tyrion’s point of view, but I use this scene as an example of what Daenerys means to Tyrion’s personal narrative.
“So here we sit, two terrible children, of two terrible fathers.”
Tyrion’s place in the story is not unlike what Daenerys’ was at the beginning of season 1. He is in a very low place. He too has been exiled, a runaway who was accused and sentenced with murdering King Joffery, but an actual killer of his own father. Having been an outcast in society and within his own family, is now literally an outcast and he comes to Daenerys seeking a reason to live. He comes to Daenerys for hope.
We know of the mistakes Daenerys has made at this point, but we also know the wisdom she has exhibited from the advice of others. We have seen her passion for justice and setting slaves free, but we have also seen her mercilessness and her heavy hand of power. In this scene Tyrion points out both of these aspects of Daenerys, but he tells her that he came to see if she was the “right kind of terrible”, someone who could still maintain order and give stability to a kingdom. In the context of this scene, as we look at Daenerys through Tyrion’s eyes, we are in no way meant to see her as mad or cruel, but a deeply flawed, volatile, passionate, and noble woman. She is human, as all the characters of this show have been, neither wholly pure nor wholly evil. Yet it is her dream that sets her apart from the rest of the candidates for the throne, a dream that speaks to Tyrion in his lowest moment and inspires him.
Daenerys: Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell they’re all just spokes on a wheel. This ones on top, then that ones on top and on and on it spins crushing those on the ground.
Tyrion: It’s a beautiful dream, stopping the wheel. You’re not the first person who’s ever dreamt it.
Daenerys: I’m not going to stop the wheel, I’m going to break the wheel.
A bold, powerful, and inspiring proclamation! Daenerys wants to stop “the game of thrones”, the petty squabbling of houses and vying for power. She wants to unite the kingdom under one ruler and bring about a better world for it. We believe her. Why? Because Tyrion believes her. Tyrion is also a dreamer just as much as Daenerys, he also values a better world. Are we to believe then that instead of this moment being a turning point for Tyrion, as it was clearly shown to be within its context, of him finally finding a promise and a hope of achieving something better than what has been, that it was actually all just a lie? Tyrion going from a terrible state to an even worse state: Delusion?
Where in this scene or in the rest of their scenes together was it indicated that Tyrion was delusional? In the elements — dialogue, acting, scene composition, the things shown to us in the frame, etc. In all those parts where was this feeling and concept conveyed to us to make a “delusional Tyrion” make sense?
It simply wasn’t, because he isn’t.
Do you see my argument? If Weiss and Benioff meant to communicate that Daenerys was “Mad King Targaryen” then why doesn’t her character conclusion make cohesive sense with these scenes? Taken in all of its elements, in its entire context, why isn’t this communicated perfectly and without question? Daenerys is one of the most crucial players in the Game of Thrones, her and Jon sharing prominence in the stories unfolding, shouldn’t we all, then, be in agreement on the meaning of the conclusion of her story?
Yet instead what Season 8 Episode 5 communicates is in direct conflict with the rest of the show and what it was communicating from the first. However, this episode isn’t the only place of conflict, there has been other moments in the show which showed this kind of disingenuous storytelling (Stannis and his burning his daughter Shireen is a good example this problem happening early on). Even the first half of Season 8 is in direct thematic conflict with the last half of season 8. Somewhere communication broke down terribly, and it simply isn’t enough for someone to point out this moment or that moment as proving Daenerys was always meant to end this way. ALL aspects of the show are communicating something to us, and so ALL aspects of the show must be taken into account and expected to be coherently saying the same thing as revealed by its whole. When we lay out Game of Thrones in all its seasons and its many elements it should be communicating “Daenerys Mad Queen”, but I have just proved that it wasn’t.
If you, my reader, truly believe this was Daenerys’ fate all along, then I ask you in earnest (in the spirit of communication and the desire for understanding) how do these scenes and the seasons they were contained in that I have just outlined above fit within that context of that narrative?
I have now come to the end of first half of my argument. The final question I would like to leave with you before closing is: what exactly is the end of Season 8 communicating? I hope that you and I can thoughtfully study this further. Thank you so much for reading and listening.