One of the repeated comments about this shortened season of Game of Thrones (which wraps up Sunday) is that show runners have really cranked up the pace, running from big event to big event instead of letting things play out over time. Part of that’s due to the nature of the season (it’s only seven episodes long) and part of it’s due to where we are in the story. Once we have the scope of this world in our heads it’s not a problem to handwave away some of the timing issues in order to barrel ahead toward the show’s conclusion.
But there are limits, and the limit seems to have been breached by this past week’s episode, “Beyond the Wall.” A quick, spoilerly, recap of the relevant bits:
Jon and company go north of The Wall to capture a zombie ice walker to take back to King’s Landing to prove to everybody this shit is real. After walking for a bit they come across the army of the undead and, for some reason, pick a fight. Jon sends Gendry running back to Eastwatch for help, which provokes a raven to be sent to Dragonstone, which leads Daenerys to fly up to save the day with all three dragons. All the while, Jon and crew are surrounded by the undead army (until it’s dramatically appropriate for it to attack, of course).
Putting to one side the sheer stupidity of Jon’s “strategy,” there’s a big whopping problem with the timing of all this. We only see the army of the undead hold off overnight before attacking, but surely it takes several days (at least) for the Gendry/raven/dragon transport system to deliver fiery death to them, right? It’s at least something that has kicked some people out of the story, pulling them past their flying snowman moment. Even the director of that episode admits the timeline is “getting a little hazy.”
But that’s not really what I’m interested in (although I’m one of those people). I’m more interested in some of the defensive comments made in response to complaints. There are several in the comments to this write-up over at io9 – they’re fairly typical:
While you’re focused on a believable timeline, does it ever cross your mind that you’re watching a show about fucking dragons.
I’m sure it would have been fun to watch seven guys stranded on a rock for another episode while they waited for the raven and the dragon’s trip back because the audience wanted a show about magical ice zombies to keep things realistic.
Someone even posted an image of the gold standard for this kind of thing, MST3K’s admonition that “it’s just a show, I should really just relax.”
People are free to accept any explanation (or none) for why something seems off in a show, movie, or book, but I have to take issue with the argument that because something is fantasy anything goes.
One of the cool things about writing fantasy is that you can, generally speaking, make up anything you want. People who can wield the power of the elements? No problem. Mythical talking beasts who aid intrepid adventurers in their quests? Bring it on. Nonetheless, there are still a couple of limits.
Primary is that to the extent the characters are human beings, they should behave like them. Maybe a guy can fly or perhaps he can summon huge storms with his mind, but he probably still gets hungry, tired, or would be pissed off if he found his girlfriend in bed with another guy. Unless there’s an in-world reason to the contrary, characters should behave like real people.
That leads into the second restriction – any fantasy story should follow the rules that it sets up for itself. Let’s say you have a world that includes a pegasus (or pegasi) and we’re told early on that, despite the wings, they can’t actually fly (they’re mystical ostriches). A pegasus cannot, sometime later, save the day by flying to the rescue. Not because it’s a known fact that a pegasus can fly, but because we’ve learned that in this world they can’t. Once your own rules go out the window the story isn’t grounded in anything.
That’s the problem Game of Thrones got into this past week. We’ve spent years getting used to the scope of its world, the sheer size of it. Characters stationed in different sections of the map were truly separated. It felt like a big place. Until the writers needed it not to be and pulled a dragon ex machina out of the hat (followed closely by a Benjen ex machina – ugh). Look, I get it – rapid transmission of information in a pre-modern fantasy world is a pain in the ass. Why do you think I had mind walkers (telepaths) in The Water Road? But if that’s the world you’re playing in, you’re stuck with it.
Saying “this is fantasy” gets you out of a lot of boxes as a writer, but it isn’t carte blanche to do whatever you want. Even in a world of dragons, frozen armies of the dead, and faceless men, stuff still has to make a basic kind of sense.
None of which is to say I’m not hella pleased with where things ended up after this episode. After all . . .