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In Search of the Great Antagonist

Even as the final episode of Game of Thrones wound down to its closing moments, the howls of outrage reverberated around the globe.

“How could they kill Daenerys?!”

“How could they kill Daenerys like that!”

“Why didn’t they have Jon Snow become king?”

Inevitably, some of the malcontents laid the blame entirely upon the HBO adaptation, holding harmless the source material; as in, surely showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss must have ignored the feedback of George R.R. Martin and diverged from his outline of the unpublished portion of A Song of Ice and Fire. Surely they must have substituted their own vision, failing to cleave to the true, authentic, magnificent outcome we should have been treated to.

I on the other hand was filled with not just a sense of satisfaction, but of relief. “Thank goodness,” I thought. “They didn’t fuck it up.”

I should add I did have doubts along the way. Beginning with the fifth season, by which time George was no longer there in the writers room and by which point the show was no longer lifting its scenes and its sub-plots straight from the published volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire, things did go off the rails now and then, an example being the awkward Sand Sisters continuity, and sheer lapses of logic yielding a rescue scene that could only be logistically possible if dragons were capable of flying at supersonic speed, summoned by ravens that must have covered the distance equally fast in the other direction. So, yes, sometimes I found myself holding my breath, aware that Benioff and Weiss were capable of stumbling. But the ending? No, that was not a stumble, except terms of the pacing. That outcome was where things were headed all along.

Why do I sound so sure? You may point out, rightly so, that no one knows how the saga is going to end in the written-word incarnation. George Martin has said he is aiming at potential outcome but that even he doesn’t know yet every character’s fate and how they get there, and won’t until he gets the final draft done and turns it in to his editors. Yeah. I know. I take him at his word. Conceded, the particulars of the story are still evolving. But when he gets there, the conclusion will reflect certain inevitabilities that the HBO version stayed true to.

Every epic, in order to be worth its salt, needs something for the characters to push against. Without that struggle, scenes have far less energy, choices are not compelling, and readers may not stick around long enough to get to the final page.

In an individual scene, the opposing force might be of minor consequence, and may play no further role outside of the chapter in which it manifests. Consider a sequence early in the saga. Tyrion is required to take up arms and mount a steed in a battle against the Young Wolf’s forces. Tyrion knows he is ill-suited to battle and will probably die. His situation is the force he must push against. He chooses to allow luck to play a role. He goes into battle. When he is knocked unconscious, the crisis is resolved. By the time he awakens, the battle is over, and is no longer confronted by his dilemma-of-the-moment. A fringe benefit to us readers is that we now know better what sort of person Tyrion is. He is someone willing to take gambles.

Jon Snow faces an opposing force in the early parts of the saga in the form of his supposed illegitimacy. He has only a bastard’s choices — to swear to the Night’s Watch and defend The Wall, to endure the mockery of comrades, to be exiled from his home. It is only after a couple of books, by which time he has proven himself to be a figure of admiration, that he no longer contends with that baggage.

Another term for “opposing force” is “antagonist.” I avoided that here until now because I want to be clear the antagonist is not always an enemy character, but can be a force, a principle, a situation. Tyrion is not contending with any individual soldier in the battle. He is up against much more than that. He is trying to survive his own father’s attempts to have him die, yet not be held accountable for killing him. Jon Snow is not contending with a particular persecutor, but against his social position. And so, too, is the entire epic not a matter of pushing against a physical, living antagonist, but against an idea.

Let’s shift for a moment to the example of Lord of the Rings. The main antagonist of that epic is not Sauron, any more than it is Saruman or orcs or big-ass spiders. The true struggle is against the power of the One Ring to seduce whatever wearer to place his (or her) finger within its circle and be transformed into an agent of evil. Sauron may have been the one who created the ring and wore it in the past. Certainly he wishes to wear it again. Certainly he is a player who affects broadly affects particulars of the saga. But Sauron is ultimately a secondary enemy. To achieve a lasting and final resolution, the heroes must eliminate the seductive capabilities of the ring. The ring’s power is the Great Antagonist, capital letters.

The Great Antagonist of Game of Thrones is not the Night King. It’s not Cersei. Nor is it any group of characters such as the Lannister clan or the Wildlings or the Boltons. There are certainly plenty of enemy-like figures in the saga. They have to be “pushed against” in their turn, sometimes for many chapters or even multiple books. But in the end, the Great Antagonist is this: The idea that someone unworthy may take, and hold, the Iron Throne.

That is what the story drives toward, relentlessly, constantly, inevitably. We know it. It’s there again and again.

In that final episode, we got the conclusion that reflected that core theme of the entire saga. Westeros ended up in the hands of a capable, compassionate, well-intentioned cabal of advisors and, in the form of Brandon Stark, a monarch who would not only rule well, but whose installation the kingdom would accept. The war of succession was brought to a close, all potential despots and inferior choices having been fended off.

Would Daenerys have been a better ruler? Hell, no. Daenerys was convinced of her own infallibility and believed in no law but her own. Plus she was batshit crazy.

Jon Snow? No. Nevermind that he was literally the trueborn heir of the Targaryen dynasty with the most legitimate of any claim to the title. He didn’t want it. To rule a kingdom like Westeros, your heart has to be in it.

I don’t know just what George Martin will do with the final portion of A Song of Ice and Fire. It could be he will diverge from the vision he shared with Benioff and Weiss. The television mini-series format ensured that of the candidates we got to know, Bran was the one and only choice. But George has a lot of pages yet to work with. I have confidence those pages will feature a number of potential worthy rulers of Westeros, along with a bevy of additional unsavory ones who will have to be overcome. Perhaps one of those noble-and-effective candidates will win the coin flip of George’s creative judgment. Perhaps we will not after all be reading about the ascension of Bran the Broken. I am however certain that Westeros will end up in good hands.

 

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2 thoughts on “In Search of the Great Antagonist”

  1. Dave, an excellent analysis with the antagonist forces. I wasn’t sure why so many were outraged by the arc for Daenerys. She was ruthless pretty much from the start, even though she tried to help some people. I did think the last couple of episodes had poor pacing (as you mentioned), and the ending seemed a bit pat, with all this jollity around the conference table at the end. Curious to see if George RRM finished the series, as I was hooked.

  2. Judging by the current pace, George may not finish the series, but I used to say that about my own trilogy, and now there is just six months to go until the release of Volume Three. Stranger things could happen.

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