This season’s Game of Thrones is proving to be an object lesson in storytelling. Good writers, especially fantasy writers, know that you can have a deus ex machina - as long as you earn it. It needs to be foreshadowed properly, and it can’t violate the rules of your universe, but you can have one.
The Game of Thrones (not A Song of Ice and Fire) writers don’t seem to be aware of this rule and are copping the appropriate amount of criticism for it.
Contrast the latest episode of Game of Thrones with Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
In The Two Towers there is the climactic scene near the end of the movie where the heroes are facing certain death. They’ve fought bravely through the night against overwhelming odds, but now they’ve been forced to retreat to the Hornburg. The Uruk-hai are battering at the gates and it’s only a matter of time before they breach. So Aragorn and Gimli convince the remaining forces to rally and ride out in one last charge, for death and glory.
As they ride into certain doom, dawn breaks and with it they see, on the hill and basked in the light of the rising sun, Gandalf and the Rohirrim. These riders then charge into the suddenly panicked mass of Uruks and the day is won.
A deus ex machina, yes, but does it feel like one? No. Because Tolkien/Jackson (I believe Jackson’s version is better) earned it. They set it up right and it didn’t violate the laws of the universe. Here’s why:
Along the way to Edoras the Fellowship encounter Eomer and the Rohirrim. This sets a limit of geography - the riders simply can’t be too far away.
Then after the evacuation of Edoras and before the battle of Helm’s Deep, Gandalf states that he’s going to find Eomer. This foreshadows his return. He doesn’t seem to appear out of nowhere, we know where he’s gone and that he plans to come back with reinforcements.
Gandalf also makes a point of mentioning that he rides Shadowfax, the king of horses. This adequately explains why he is able to catch up to a mounted force and bring them back in time.
Finally Gandalf states to Aragorn ‘look to my coming at first light on the fifth day. At dawn, look to the east’ then, lo, at dawn on the fifth day Gandalf arrives with the first light from the east. Just as the Big G foretold.
All of it was established so all of it feels right.
Compare this to the latest episode of Game of Thrones.
Technically it was exactly the same thing that happened. The heroes are cornered by a savage, mindless horde, bent on their destruction. They face certain doom and yet still, like heroes, they bravely fight on, determined to go down swinging.
Then all of a sudden Daenerys and her dragons appear. And just in time too - what good fortune it is that they showed up when they did, just after the minor characters died but just before anyone with pre-show credits faced the blade.
What remarkable timing!
There’s a reason it feels cheap - because it wasn’t set up properly. It violates the laws of the universe. It’s fine to have magic and fantasy, but it needs to be consistent with itself.
It was clumsy. The heroes recognise their predicament and send for help. Gendry goes running back to the Wall. Then Davos sends a raven messenger asking for help. That raven then flies halfway across the continent to Dragonstone. Daenerys jumps on her dragons and then shoots off back to the Wall and makes it just in time for supper.
Even all of this would be somewhat plausible if the preceding 6 seasons of the show hadn’t made a point of telling you how bloody long it takes to get anywhere. Jon spends months going north of the wall and months getting back. Bran took years to get to the Three Eyed Raven. Gendry spent years rowing a boat from Dragonstone to King’s Landing, long enough for it to become a meme.
It violates its own rules.
This season is all about cool for the sake of cool. Events are happening for narrative purposes and the canon is being shoehorned to make it fit. Dany can travel to the Wall in minutes because it makes for a cool entrance. Euron can ambush a fleet out of nowhere because the script says that has to happen. Highgarden and Casterly Rock and Dragonstone all seem to exist in some sort of superposition where they’re on different sides of Westeros yet also within an afternoon stroll of each other.
And so it all feels tacky.
Sure it’s dramatic. It’s cool. It’s a lot of fun to watch. But to call a spade a spade, it’s lazy storytelling.
As Grandpa Tolkien showed, you can have your deus ex machina if you lay the pieces down early. If you earn it. Gandalf tells you what is going to happen and how he’s going to make it happen. And it works.
Robert Jordan at Dumai’s Wells had a similar deus ex machina rescue which he set up by having specific character traits that led to that point, as well as an army of wizards with magic powers who were trained in previous books to provide that exact, specific rescue.
Terry Pratchett, in his beautifully unique way, introduced the concept of ‘narrativium’ to the Discworld - a magical force that manifested whenever a specific plot point needed to be advanced.
That’s what good storytelling is. That’s where David Benioff and D.B Weiss failed. They’re a product of television, not literature. They deal in flashy visuals and big explosions, they don’t concern themselves with such literary nonsense as narrative cohesion.
That being said, I liked it. Dramatic last stands. Dragons breathing fire. Heroic last stands. Dead men with flaming flails. That’s some majorly cool shit.
But I’m also a writer. And when you’re a writer, at some point along the way, you lose the ability to enjoy stories. All you see is the code. And when you see poorly written code you can’t help but stay up until the small hours of the morning writing a blog about it.