For screenwriters, the revelation of a person’s true character is an important, but equally difficult challenge.
Beliefs, preferences, morality, worldview, ambitions, etc.. are all summed up in a person’s true character and more often than not, a screenplay requires that a character reveals all, or at least one, of those things.
So how do you do that? How do you tell the audience that the good guy is actually bad or that the bad guy is actually good?
Game of Thrones season 8 has provided both a good example and a bad example of how to handle the revelation of true character.
In his book STORY, Robert Mckee says about true character:
True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature– Robert McKee, STORY
So let’s see why one revelation of true character is disappointing, and the other is not:
How NOT to reveal true character – Daenerys
First of all, I’m just going to assume that Dany burning down king’s landing was always in the plan. After all, the idea that all Targaryens can be either “Breaker of chains” or “Burn them all!!!!!!!!” has been established early on the series.
“Every time a new Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin”– Game of Thrones, season 1
Many point to the fast pacing as the biggest issue, but in my opinion, the real problem with this season’s version of The mother of dragons is that the sudden change seems unmotivated.
In episode 6 we get the resemblance of an explanation from Tyrion:
“Everywhere she goes evil men die and we cheer for it. She grows more powerful and more sure that she is good and right. She believes that her destiny is to build a better world for everyone. If you believed it, if you truly believed it wouldn’t you kill anyone who stood between you and paradise?”– Game of Thrones, season 8 episode 6
Essentially, what he is saying is that Dany has always been on the verge of madness. It’s just that before her “victims” were horrible people and no one felt sorry for them, but now she has crossed the line and targeted innocent people.
We also get another resemblance of an explanation from Jon:
“She saw her friend beheaded, she saw her dragon fall from the sky”– Game of Thrones, season 8, episode 6
It’s true, Daenerys has lost a lot in a very short period of time: 2 of her children/dragons, her most trusted friend/advisor, the man she loves, and finally her claim to the throne.
So now we have two conflicting explanations to what happened:
1- Dany has always been the “Mad Queen”, it’s just that no one realized it
2- All the recent trauma and loss that she has experienced drove her mad
As I said before, true character can only be revealed through the choices they make under pressure, by analyzing why and how the characters made those choices we can tell who they really are.
There is a simple, yet effective way, to make sure that all the most important choices align with one’s true character:
1- Check the character’s history (how they have behaved in the past in similar circumstances)
2- Make them feel the pressure (raise the stakes in order to force the character to make a choice)
The choice in question is the destruction of King’s Landing. We have two different versions of Daenerys: the “Breaker of chains” before and the “Crazy dragon lady” after.
So what’s the difference between choosing to kill those people and to choosing to kill the population of King’s Landing?
First of all, the ones who get executed by Daenerys in Essos all had something in common: they were opposing her. Some wanted to kill her, others wanted to undermine her power or sabotage her plans, in any case, they were standing in her way.
By eliminating those people, Daenerys wasn’t just bringing justice to the ones they had mistreated, she was also taking away rivals, backstabbers, and enemies.
The people of King’s Landing?
They were not an obstacle. The city had already surrendered, the population wasn’t exactly crazy in love with the current ruler, and they had no intention to stand in the way of a queen with a huge fire spitting pet.
Essentially, this wasn’t the first time Daenerys killed someone, but it was the first time she killed innocent people without a valid reason.
Is there pressure?
When the bells started to ring, Daenerys had won. There were no enemies left, no lands to conquer, no “Dracarys” to say.
She wasn’t forced to take action, nor to choose between killing and leaving alive. No pressure to make a difficult choice.
I’ve thought about it for a while, and, to be honest, the decision she made would have made much more sense if the bells hadn’t rung.
Dany is flying around burning people and stuff, Jon & Co are fighting in the streets, they keep going this way until just a handful of Lannister soldiers are left alive and then they realize that the city is in ruins. Jon and Tyrion are horrified and feel guilty, but Dany thinks that this was a necessary price to pay because the enemy didn’t surrender immediately.
There you go, this way you have both a King’s Landing in shambles and a sociopathic murderous queen without the nonsense.
How to reveal true character – Jon
We have a completely different case just one episode later with the (former) King in the North.
Ok, we have to admit that the (too) fast pacing ruined a lot of potentially epic/emotional moments. Because of this the importance of Jon’s struggle to decide between betraying Dany and staying loyal felt rushed. I mean, it took literally 40 minutes…
Regardless of that, from a technical standpoint, the revelation of Jon’s true character was handled well.
In this last season, the heir to the Throne has to choose between his duty towards his people and his family and his love for a woman. As he himself puts it:
“Love is the death of duty”– Game of Thrones, season 8, episode 6
So what comes to mind is naturally his betrayal of Ygritte and the wildlings back in season 3. Here are the similarities between the two situations:
- both times Jon had sworn an oath to protect/defend someone (his brothers of the Night’s watch and the Northerners)
- both times he had fallen in love with a woman whose goal conflicted with his own (Ygritte wanted to help her people defeat the Crows, Daenerys wanted to rule over all the 7 kingdoms including the North)
- both times the success of his mission depended exclusively on him (if he hadn’t betrayed the Free Folk, they would have managed to infiltrate Castle Black; if he hadn’t killed Dany she would have gone on and on “liberating” people)
The betrayal of Ygritte shows us that in situations with a great deal of pressure Jon chooses his duty (the well being of the people) over his own feelings.
So it’s believable that once he found himself in a similar situation he decided to act the same way.
Is there pressure?
During his conversation with Tyrion, Jon has to consider everything that is at risk if the “Mad Queen” is left unchecked: the independence of the North, the lives of his sisters, the stability of the 7 kingdoms and other countries around the world.
On the other hand, if he had to take action and betray his ruler: Jon would not only have to live in guilt for the rest of his life, but also face the ones who were still loyal to Daenerys (the Dothraki and the Unsullied).
Jon finds himself in a battle between what he wants and what he knows to be right, and no matter what decision he takes something or someone he cares about will have to be sacrificed.
Having a character make a stupid/nonsensical choice and justifying it by saying “She cray” is a rookie mistake. The audience will immediately understand that this is just a cheap trick to move the plot forward.
On the other hand, having a character struggle between two equally painful choices and have him pick the option that reflects his true nature the most is simply good writing.
The ending of Game of Thrones had both instances of good writing and rookie mistakes. What does that mean?
Well, to me this long ass analysis shows something that is both reassuring and frustrating: the writers of the show know how to write.
There is no way to know for sure that the absence of new books is the main reason for the bad writing of season 8.
But it’s crystal clear that even without guidance from George RR Martin the showrunners are experienced enough to make their characters act “in character”, they simply decided that doing that for everyone was too much trouble.