Subversion Versus Dramatic Irony: An English Teacher’s Opinion on the Hubbub Concerning Season 8, Episode 5 of Game of Thrones

The internet is abuzz with Game of Thrones and whether or not Season 8’s fifth episode works. It’s getting quite vehement out there with digital-finger pointing and much crayness times a good and solid number upwards of two. I get it. We love stories, and when our stories are under assault, we respond. So, here is my simple and brief high school English teacher opinion: this whole vitriolic landscape of arguments comes down to a meditation on a switch in the value of the normal, run-of-the-mill elements that make up a serialized story. It is not negligence. It’s about values. And just so you know, this contains spoilers.

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the writers for the entirety of the TV edition of Game of Thrones, have been going it alone for a couple seasons without a George R.R. Martin book as a reference. The stereotypical English teacher that lives in all of our kind is primed to say at this point of the essay and maybe before, “What? You mean that the book is better than the TV show version?” Yeah. I know. But what other extremely high fantasy TV shows have made it to blockbuster TV status? It’s this kind of show that really delights us nerds who love the source material and the genre.

Now, let us hone our focus. We shall dismiss all else but the most discussed event in Game of Thrones: Daenerys’s arc from hero to villain. (We shall not mention things like the sheer absence of surviving fighters at Winterfell during “The Long Night” or the likelihood our heroes, absolutely surrounded by undead for many, many minutes, could have survived. Sorry. I cheated in the parentheses.) Basically, the argument goes that Daenerys’s character was meant to go bad from the beginning. It is a tragedy upon a tragedy for an orphan who was abused and denied her birthright by terrible people and terrible family. We applaud her strength and her road to redemption, a hard road that steers her in ways she misinterprets. Hardships mount, and we find she has too far hardened herself. Then you have Jon, her foil, who grows up in a loving household despite his seemingly antagonistic origins and his family’s eventual tragedy. And we see him rise to do good. Simple: a tale of two orphans and a meditation on environment and genetics and experience and such and so forth. It’s a good founding for grey area, for setting up the stage to pit such tragically rendered characters against each other. It’s brilliant.

When I first started reading Martin’s first book in the series, A Game of Thrones, I knew it to be a noteworthy thing to read. Someone had already told me that this was a different sort of fantasy book. Sometimes the fantasy genre can get too fantastic, too far enamored with the heroic journey. And so when Ned Stark dies at the end of Martin’s first book, you are flabbergasted, even if you have a friend and the internet priming you that nobody is safe in this book.

In such a rough world, it makes sense for good people to make a stand, fail, and be role models for other good people. Martin is showing us the real arc of humanity. Yes, there are notable people we can point to as inevitable and necessary leaders, but no one leader is alone in their charge for what they believe. It is refreshing to read a book that treats life as life. You get what you deserve, and it’s not about always deserving better. And while their may be seeming miracles or luck, just like in real life, there are no miraculous-saving events, no deus ex machinas. If there is a battle, there is a strong chance main characters may not make it out alive. To prove the point, Martin even said that he wrote “The Red Wedding” last because it was just darn hard for him to write what was necessary and what he must do to Rob Stark and Catelyn Stark.

In season 8, episode 5 of the TV series, this sort of fictional realism has been quite distorted and has been for some time. Instead of following the characters, letting consequences do their wills as happened with Ned and Catelyn (Ned and Rob trusted too much those they shouldn’t have), we have been left with the word “subversion.” It is everywhere on the internet with the serious and sarcastic intent to describe what many fiction writers sometimes do: try to “subvert” the predictions of their audience to create gripping stories.

Indeed, originality should be lauded. But not at the cost of realism. And this is what is at the root of the criticism of the TV series. Benioff and Weiss have chosen to forgo character development in order to create an experience for the audience. It is a simple argument: Daenerys’s character needed to be likeable in order for everyone but Cersei to be thankful for her presence in fighting the Night King. But once that was over, she needed to become the enemy. The problem is that this happened over the course of two (and maybe less than that) episodes.

Audiences have been primed to see redemption in Jamie, in Theon, in The Hound, etc. Such redemption happens in huge, patient, and messy character arcs. The contention here is that Benioff and Weiss created a limited scope of time to finish priming audiences for Daenerys’s full turn.

What’s happened here is that dramatic irony has been pushed to the side. Dramatic irony is an old and lauded literary tool. Ancient Greek choruses and Shakespeare and, well, everybody have all used dramatic irony to wonderful effect. We know what will happen to Romeo and Juliet right when the play starts. And most of us know what will happen to Hamlet when we watch a version of the play because we live in an era where such a play is just known. We watch reruns of our favorite movies and still feel moved. When the cello plays while someone is in the water, we have a strong inkling of what will happen. And the effect is the same: we somehow think it has to end differently though we absolutely know this to be false. Dramatic irony provides full lamentation. It’s a powerful and illogical emotion. And this has everything to do with character development. If dramatic irony is to to work, we need to see hope; we need to see a way out.

What’s wrong with knowing what’s going to happen? That’s what Benioff and Weiss have been stressing over, it seems. And the product is the end of Game of Thrones, a show that started off being realistic because its characters suffered their consequences. Now, it has become what it did not set out to be: a way to manipulate events for audience effect. This is the point of contention. But, you know, stories that are driven by novel and fantastic plots are its own form of entertainment. Not a bad one. Perhaps one that is divisive or specific in its viewership. But don’t we already have too many of them? Thus, the gnashing of teeth on the internet.

Suffice it to say, we are all very particular about our entertainment.