‘Game of Thrones’ doesn’t care about the common people

The fantasy series’ biggest problems have a simple solution: remember the little people who have everything to lose.

by Emil Hofileña

There’s nothing wrong with epic. After six seasons of build-up, fans of HBO’s high fantasy drama series Game of Thrones—which recently concluded its seventh season—deserved epic. So, finally, we got to see northern lords Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) fight for control over the Iron Throne and the land of Westeros against ruthless queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), dragon-riding warlord Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), and the undead Night King (Vladimir Furdik). For these past seven episodes, showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss decided to trade in the intricate politics of the Seven Kingdoms for the pure spectacle of dragon fire and ice zombies—resulting in HBO’s highest ratings ever.

There’s nothing wrong with epic. But is epic enough?

The straight answer: it never is. Season seven of Game of Thrones has been criticized for its indifference towards logic and plausibility, disregarding nuances of both character and setting in order to fast-forward to big set pieces and moments of fan service. And without major creative input from George R. R. Martin—the author of book series A Song of Ice and Fire, on which Game of Thrones is based—the television show has felt more like fan fiction with each season. It doesn’t possess as much dramatic weight as it once did, the epic tone frequently coming off hollow.

But the biggest issue Game of Thrones has—the main reason why its epic scope isn’t leaving a stronger impression—is that it’s never really tried to make us understand what’s really at stake: the fate of the common Westerosi people. We know next to nothing about their lives, what they need, or what they stand to lose. Whoever wins the Iron Throne, the prize has always been just power. How we feel about Game of Thrones’ characters has little to do with our belief in their capability to rule—and little to do with the fate of the citizens whose lives hang in the balance.

Before you object, I get it: no one wants to see that. No one wants a series entitled Game of Thrones to be about commoners whose actions don’t affect the world around them. Besides, these medieval stories almost always center exclusively on characters of nobility, especially when in feudal societies like Westeros. But I’m not saying Game of Thrones needs an additional protagonist to serve as a mouthpiece for the commoners, nor should the eighth season be dedicated solely to matters of governance. Rather, it just needs to more clearly define its endgame—which will help solve the problems the show is beginning to face.

First, helping us understand the commoners’ living conditions in Westeros—and making this milieu a more prominent point of discussion—should not only let the setting itself become more nuanced, but also allow Game of Thrones’ highborn characters to be more interesting. We know Daenerys is opposed to slavery and Cersei doesn’t care about the poor, but right now, these beliefs haven’t truly interacted with the milieu itself. By denying us the opportunity to see how the people from the capital of King’s Landing might respond to these beliefs, Cersei and Dany are also denied the chance to grow. When their beliefs remain largely unchallenged, characters remain largely static.

And what of Jon and Sansa? We know nothing of the citizens of the North and how they’re being ruled, beyond the throwaway assumption that they must be fine under the honorable Starks. But an assumption is never enough and no ruler is ever simply honorable, and giving us access to what the remaining Stark siblings want and need to do for their realm would anchor Jon’s character on something more than just brooding, and would defuse the complaint that Sansa simply isn’t as competent as her adopted brother.

Moreover, having the common people of Westeros be a major point of interest in Game of Thrones would have saved season seven (and might still save season eight) from its flawed idea of characterization. Recent episodes saw Benioff and Weiss relying on mundane Quentin Tarantino-esque conversations in an attempt to flesh out secondary characters. These interactions are undeniably entertaining, but they don’t contribute to character growth.

However, if you reorient some of these conversations to circulate around the common goal at hand—the fate of the free people—it would give them a chance to say something truly worthwhile that relates to the overarching narrative. It would allow them to respond, disagree, or empathize with one another, leaving tons of space for growth. Again, I’m not saying that we have to turn brutish characters like Sandor “The Hound” Clegane (Rory McCann) and Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) into social justice warriors; we simply have to ground them within the larger milieu—to remind us that their fate is inextricably tied to the fate of the people.

Perhaps most importantly, providing a clear picture of Westeros and its inhabitants would allow the showrunners to get away with their “pure spectacle” approach. This close to the end of the series, Benioff and Weiss obviously feel strongly about delivering on all the large-scale action that had been promised. But the approach isn’t completely working because they’re still trying to contrive drama between characters.

If all the groundwork is established, however—if the viewers find themselves fully invested in the safety of the regular people who stand to lose everything—then perhaps it might be easier to excuse these shorter seasons that depend on set pieces more than ever. Drama wouldn’t have to be manufactured between different characters every episode. Instead, urgency would hang in the background through every battle, the dramatic stakes stemming naturally from the knowledge that every victory and defeat will have very real consequences.

You could argue that this approach is too conventional, or too compassionate, even, for a show like Game of Thrones. But you don’t need to look further than the source novels to know that it can be done. A Song of Ice and Fire also revolves around characters of nobility, but the commoners are discussed more frequently, without interrupting the action—giving a human quality to the rich fantasy landscape Martin has crafted. Characters from Varys, to Arya Stark, to Jorah Mormont have expressed their concern about smallfolk, while this speech from Septon Meribald provides much-needed insight into how all this warring has affected the common people.

In fact, you don’t need to look further than Game of Thrones itself to know how to solve the show’s existing problems. The early seasons didn’t focus on civilians any more than season seven does, but what’s important is that the characters always felt more human. Daenerys’ right hand Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) spent four seasons struggling with his being a dwarf. The traitor Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) spent just as much time struggling with his loyalty and identity. The Night’s Watch was shown to be a terribly flawed faction that still became a source of pride and honor for exiled criminals and lowlives. Game of Thrones has been better than it is now because it’s been more personal than it is now. Nothing’s wrong with epic, but nothing’s better than being human.