I just watched season 4 Episode 9 “The Watchers on the Wall,” and if you are a fan of the series you know that usually the 9th episode of any given season is the one where somebody you really care about gets slaughtered (usually in the most terrible way imaginable). Until now, I’ve taken great pleasure in those moments because I’ve read the first three books, and I’ve been watching the show with the knowledge of what’s going to happen. It’s fun because I’ve been watching it with my wife, and my foreknowledge allows me to eagerly await her shocked reaction (although I’ve refrained from video taping her in secret and posting it to YouTube because I want to stay married...although it is funny when other people do that).
I learn a lot from my wife’s reaction to the show. She’s a very no-nonsense person and it’s good for a writer to know a person like that since it keeps you on track. I know from experience that if my wife starts to lose interest in something, then the majority of the population is going to start losing interest as well. Contrary to popular misconception--you are NOT all-powerful as a writer. You need to obey some rules or people won't read your work.
The main death in 4:9 (spoiler again) is Jon Snow’s Wildling girlfriend Ygritte. They have a mini-reunion as her group of marauders attacks Castle Black. She has Snow dead to rights but finds she doesn't have the heart to fill him full of arrows. He notices her and smiles at her, just as she takes a fatal arrow herself giving them just enough time to embrace for two seconds before she expires.
During this scene, my wife didn’t look at me with the emotion she’d showed when Ned Stark or Robb Stark were killed. This time she just gave me a kind of exasperated look and said, “so I guess nobody gets a chance at happiness in this series.”
I thought that comment summed up the series nicely and was in line with my own thinking on the matter. When I was reading the books, I got to approximately the point where the show is at now, and then lost patience. My biggest problem with Martin’s work is that there doesn’t seem to be a redeeming quality for which you endure all the agony of watching your favorite characters suffer and die. Martin seems to be a one trick pony and the trick is this: get your readers to like a character—kill that character. If you do this kind of thing as a writer, your readers will have patience with it for a while because they expect there to be some kind of grand payoff. But if you go to the well too often, you risk loosing your audience. It happened with me and I sense that it’s happening with my wife as well.
If Martin were a bit more talented, he'd have known that he was on the verge of losing people and Ygritte represented a great way to win them back. She's not a major character, but she's big enough that allowing her a moment of joy would have gone a long way towards regaining the trust of the audience. They'd think, "ahh...so she's the reason we watched everyone die...so we'd appreciate this!" In contrast, killing her lacks the punch because of her fringe status. Personally, I much prefer the "throwing a bone" quality of sparing Ygritte and at least offering the chance of some kind of future for her and Jon Snow, than just slaughtering her for the sake of sending Snow off on a suicidal mission. Martin's choice in this instance lacks finesse--in fact, it's very sloppy and manipulative writing (and the response is a flat emotional reaction...which is what you don't want). This choice is also what has lead to this unflattering and very accurate cartoon representation of Martin (it's a play on a speech Tyrion Lannister gave in a previous episode):
I know what’s going to happen in the last episode of this season and it should be a fairly good finale. I expect I’ll watch a couple episodes of season 5 in the hope that Martin does eventually make the decision to have some point to all the chaos he causes. But really, I doubt that’s going to be the case. Still, it’s easier to watch the show than it is to read the books—because frankly the actual writing is pretty pedestrian.
It’s great to have a fantasy series that is realized with such great acting and production quality that it captivates such a wide audience. It’s just too bad that of all the great works out there, HBO had to choose Game of Thrones when there are really far better stories that deserve more exposure.
But then again, I haven’t read the rest of the series, so maybe it redeems itself. Those of you who have read the books, feel free to tell me so if that’s the case (spoilers don’t bother me—I go along for the ride and surprises are just cheap tricks as far as I’m concerned). Also, feel free to leave me some polite suggestions as to how I'm steering things wrong in my own series which starts with this book. Hey...I shouldn't dish it out if I can't take it right?