In the seventh season of Desperate Housewives, Gabrielle Solis was attacked by the abusive stepfather who molested her as a child. During the struggle Gabrielle’s husband, Carlos, kills the abuser. The problem is, Carlos is an ex-con and is afraid of returning to the slammer for killing an unarmed man. None of this makes any sense, but much like the season finale of Big Little Lies, Gabrielle and her fellow housewives decide to cover up the murder. This happens for no other reason than the fact that it makes for an exciting cliffhanger, and, well, Desperate Housewives is a soap opera, so it needed something juicy to kick off its eighth and final season. You know, something like a convoluted plot to kidnap a zombie that results in a zombie dragon destroying the Wall.
Game of Thrones has always been a soap opera—unfortunately it doesn’t know it’s one, which is why the most recent season was a mess (albeit an engaging one). Soap operas are looked down on by most television critics, yet at their best they produce great drama and hold a mirror up to society. After all, it’s soap operas that introduced us to interracial couples, gay leading men, and abortion before they were mundane topics on prestige dramas. The slow pace of soap operas also lends itself to deeper character development, as you are privy to a character’s thoughts for weeks on end before they might enact the plot they’ve been hatching—which used to be the fun of Game of Thrones’ earlier seasons, where diabolical maneuvers were more enticing than dragons.
Soap operas have gotten a bad rap due to their penchant for ludicrous plot twists like demonic possession, lost underground cities, time travel, and the infamous Moldavian Massacre on Dynasty where the entire cast was sprayed with bullets at a destination wedding, their lives left hanging in the balance between seasons. From where I sit, there’s not a lick of difference between this and Game of Thrones. You’ve got resurrected zombie dragons, resurrected Jon Snow, secret tunnels underneath cities, Three-Eyed Ravens traveling through time, and the Red Wedding. None of Game of Thrones’ plot twists would be out of place on a daytime or prime-time soap, so why are those shows more deftly plotted than HBO’s fantasy epic is these days?
Because of Game of Thrones’ hubris, plain and simple.
Soap operas weren’t just billed as fluffy dramas for housewives to watch in the middle of the day. Time magazine wrote a cover story on Days of Our Lives and other soaps for its Jan. 12, 1976, issue titled “Sex and Suffering in the Afternoon.” The reason you tuned in to a soap was to watch your favorite characters suffer as much as you wanted them to triumph. For this to happen, you can rely on wild cliffhangers, but you can’t ignore the basic rules of soap: suspense over surprise.
Take Littlefinger’s demise in the finale this week. It’s meant to come as a shock when what it actually does is trade on withholding information from the audience in order to shock it. We saw Arya and Sansa Stark nearly at war only a week prior, yet somehow they’ve managed to regroup so they can get the goods on Lord Baelish? The breakneck speed at which the show is hurtling toward some big conclusion is hurting plots that could have serious emotional ramifications. Baelish saved Sansa’s life, she trusts him despite warnings from Arya. A better story would have examined their relationship, shown you the sisters coming together, let you feel the walls closing in on Baelish… but this is Game of Thrones so it thinks all it needs are some serious speeches and posturing and it can pretend it’s the most prestigious show on television. The reasons America craved Dallas in the ’80s are the reasons it craves Game of Thrones now: excess, sex, and characters one-upping each other.
I can understand why it’s hard for Game of Thrones to go this route. It was adapted from literary source material, which probably elevates it in the minds of its creators. And yet, by giving agency to a wide array of characters, a soap opera was born. The characters many audience members are drawn to are ancillary in the books and without POVs, which helps to lessen their importance in the novels. But on a television series, where you’re building out worlds and casting great actors who you create juicy scenes for that weren’t in the source material (let alone when you lump the source material all together), you need to address the new kind of show you’ve created.
Robb Stark never had a distinct POV in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, but the reasons for the Red Wedding were explored through other characters. When we reached the point last season where Margaery Tyrell’s rationale for aligning herself with the High Sparrow was murky at best, it became clear that the series was now prioritizing dragons and explosions, as the later years of a winding-down soap are wont to do. But because it has never embraced its DNA, we also get served the hurried deaths of characters like Lady Olenna and Littlefinger, which make little sense narratively.
As we barrel into Game of Thrones’ final season, its soapiest plot of all threatens to consume the series: Jon and Daenerys’ incestuous relationship. Incest isn’t new to the genre (hello, Passions) and neither is the secret heir. But without Martin’s roadmap, the Game of Thrones writers would be wise to err on the side of caution. While it’s treated as an explosive twist, it’s not really, and it’s ridiculous to think that anyone with the possession of an army of Dany’s size would care about Jon being the true heir to the throne. The twist itself, particularly in a world where incest is now so run-of-the-mill, wouldn’t even be that devastating to the characters. There’s plenty of drama brewing with a burgeoning romance between Jon and Daenerys, Tyrion’s plotting, and the potential return of Daario. Let’s hope the writers plan to explore these characters’ emotions in the final season rather than falling into the season seven trap of using a convenient twist to wrap things up nicely with a bow.