This post will be touching on magical plot points covering the first three seasons of HBO’s excellent series, Game of Thrones. If you are caught up with the show, there won’t be any spoilers here.
Although HBO’s Game of Thrones was relatively light on magical elements in its first season, the show is undeniable a fantasy as we approach its fourth season.
Dragons, witchcraft, curses, illusions, face changers, resurrections, and creepy bald headed warlocks have all made their way on screen.
The question is, are all these elements good for the show? Game of Thrones operates masterfully as a quasi-historical epic, without magic. If magic can be used to dramatically change the equation of power between the competing factions, then doesn’t this lower the stakes? How can we become invested in the story if magic can be used, a la deus ex machina, to slay or save one of the characters without warning?
Let’s work through a striking example.
Stannis Baratheon really doesn’t like the fact that no one is respecting his right to be king of Westeros. His “nephew”, Joffrey Baratheon is sitting on the Iron Throne, mocking his claim. Balon Greyjoy and Robb Stark are acting as thieves, stealing away parts of his kingdom.
Even his brother Renly was a pretender to the throne.
Stannis does not have the troops but he does have magical resources at his disposal.
With a ritual involving a nude Melisandre and the extraction of royal body fluids, the groundwork for a magical spell is in place.
Before you know it, Catelyn Stark gets to witness a usurper unexpectedly skewered by a shady character.
Oh, sorry about that. I don’t mean Renly Baratheon.
I’m talking about Robb Stark.
What? I hear you say. Melisandre didn’t have anything to do with Robb’s death! It was all arranged by Tywin!
Exactly. Although I’m not that wrong. We did get to see some naked Melisandre. Gendry, King Robert’s bastard boy, donated some royal-ish body fluids to feed some slugs. Then Melisandre roasted those slugs as a curse, Westerosi Horror Story style.
Melisandre was quick to take credit for Robb’s death.
But we know who the culprit is.
Tywin, like Melisandre, exercised power that few possess, made a bargain with devils (figuratively, although Walder Frey might be Satan himself), and as unexpectedly as if lightning struck them, eliminated enemies to his rule.
Okay, even I agree that this is a false equivalency. Melisandre summoning a smoke monster to assassinate Renly is not exactly the same as Tywin Lannister striking a deal with sketchy characters who held a grudge against Robb.
But the similarities should at least be examined.
The accusation against magic is that unless we know the rules, we can’t appreciate the dramatic stakes. Magic might be used unexpectedly to alter any situation.
Tywin is wildly rich and powerful. His resources might be used unexpectedly to alter any situation. Like they were used to kill Robb.
The rules for magic are not explicitly laid out (although we can make some assumptions.)
Likewise, we don’t know how rich Tywin Lannister is, we just know he’s rich.
How much of Lannister assets are liquid and how much tied up in investments, real estate, or stored overseas at the Iron Bank of Braavos? How much treachery can the Lannisters buy? How resistant to bribery and coercion are the bannermen of the other great Houses?
We don’t know, but we don’t have to know. Right?
So why get bunched up about magic?
I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t care if magic has rules or not. Magic should make some kind of sense. But it is magic. At some deep level of examination, it won’t make sense. Otherwise it’d be science.
I’m more interested in consistency than in having complete knowledge of the magical rules. If someone has power, demonstrates that power, it should be done consistently. If there’s a poetic sense to the magic, all the better. It helps to get a grasp of the limits of the magic.
In the second season, the appearance of the Shadow Assassin led to all sorts of wild speculation, basically free of any examination of limits. It’s not so much that the show was being inconsistent, but the assumptions that supported the speculations were not necessarily valid.
- Why isn’t Stannis sending the smoke monster to kill Joffrey? Or all of Joffrey’s men? The allegation was that since Stannis wasn’t deploying the smoke monster like a drone in Pakistan, the show was being inconsistent.
- Why didn’t Melisandre unleash the smoke monster on Stannis when he was strangling her, to defend herself? The allegation was that since Melisandre had birthed the smoke monster, it should be loyal to her and either she could summon it while being strangled, or it was, I don’t know, chilling out nearby.
The crux of this is: we only have one data point to work with when it comes to Melisandre’s summoning of the shadowy smoke assassin. It’s hard to make accurate predictions of future possibilities with one data point.
My detractors would say that that’s exactly why magic in the story is all jacked up. Since there are no rules, we don’t know. That’s a somewhat compelling argument, but even with one data point, the confidence of any given prediction can be examined.
Why isn’t Stannis sending the smoke monster to kill Joffrey or all of Joffrey’s men?
The unspoken assumption is that the smoke monster is a persistent being that can travel great distances.
My assumption is that the smoke monster dissipated after killing Renly and no longer exists. It does appear to be made of smoke, after all.
When the assassin kills Renly, it physically moves through the space in the tent (at 54 seconds in the above clip.) After it kills Renly, it does not visibly exit the tent. It just boils away into the air.
And is never seen again.
So maybe I’m wrong. But the smoke monster not being used again is consistent with it being a fire and forget weapon.
But couldn’t Stannis and Melisandre just get some more map-table action going and make a new one?
Sure. It’s even brought up in Season Three. Melisandre puts Stannis off because his “fires burn low” which could mean a lot of things. Maybe he’s now magically impotent and has to eat a lot of kale, or possibly he’s totally lost his mojo, or maybe Melisandre just isn’t that into map-table sex.
But even if they did, it’s a long trip from Dragonstone to King’s Landing. Given that Davos had to row Missy to shore, close to Renly’s camp implies that the shadow assassin doesn’t have a long range.
Smoke isn’t known for keeping a coherent shape for long periods of time. Okay, I’ll admit that smoke is also not known for forming into the solid shape of a man and stabbing anyone. But Melisandre was rowed ashore and gave birth in a cave, instead of comfortably from a warm bath. Lamaze, yo.
If she didn’t have to get near Renly, why did she? So she probably had to be near.
But couldn’t Melisandre summon the smoke monster to protect her when being strangled?
Okay, I don’t understand this at all.
Melisandre gave birth to the shadow assassin while being super-magically pregnant. With Stannis’ junk. To kill Renly. Who Stannis wanted dead so he could win the battle without having to fight. The shadow assassin seemed to be working on Stannis’ agenda.
Melisandre GAVE BIRTH to the shadow assassin. She didn’t snap her fingers and poof, death-genie materialization! It seemed like a pretty involved process, and a painful one. I think it’s safe to say that one of the requirements Melisandre might have had was Not To Be Strangled At That Time while birthing the monster.
Couldn’t the shadow assassin do Stannis’ taxes? Teach Sansa to do kung fu?
… okay, I’m getting carried away. No one is asking that.
But my point is, it’s fine to have questions, but having questions does not mean the story is broken. If the show provides answers, cool.
But not every question needs an answer. If there’s a plausible explanation (like Melisandre not having had more sex with Stannis to produce a shadow monster) then that’s a fine hypothesis and a working set of understandable rules. This is how humans have understood their environment for thousands of years. (Well, some humans.)
The show might provide evidence to reinforce a hypothesis, the show might present evidence that makes the hypothesis less likely. That isn’t a problem.
If the show presents something as fact, then presents contradictory facts, then that’s a problem.
But that’s true with or without magic.
Images from HBO’s Game of Thrones, obviously.
I make no claim to the artwork, but some claims to the text here, so there.
© Patrick Sponaugle 2014 Some Rights Reserved