Talking Game of Thrones: Mysteries and Enigmas


In my review of “Blackwater”, I singled out the House of the Undying as a failure on the part of the executive producers. That was not to say that it was not visually beautiful, or that it did not give Emilia Clarke her single best scene of this season (and not by just a narrow margin — this was a much more appealing scene than anything she had done this season). This is not to say that the expectation was that very single detail in the scene would appear — my run down over at’s episode guide is extraordinarly long — but something of it should have been preserved. Why? Because mystery and enigma is at the heart of “A Song of Ice and Fire”. Without it, you’re only scratching the surface of the narrative.

The show has touched on prophecy, once or twice, but the most significant prophetic vision this season was Bran’s vision of the sea sweeping over Winterfell… and that vision was resolved an episode or two later. Which means that this season the show will use visions and prophecies when they have an almost-immediate resolution, letting the enigma of them barely register before it’s solved. It’s a markedly different approach from that on the novel, where prophecies are part of the core of certain characters (such as Bran, and of course Daenerys, the most prophesied-about, destiny-laden character in the series). Even the prophecy Dany repeats, from the first season, is not exactly depicted as a prophecy on the show: Mirri Maaz Duur’s words are full of seeming impossibilities… but they cut out a salient clause, the last one before she reveals the conditions by which Drogo will return: “When your womb quickens again, and you bring forth a living child.” Suddenly, these words which just seem like fancy way of saying “never” might just possibly hint at something that the character themselves might be able to affect, be able to do. Is it prophecy, or just the cruel words of a furious woman? Either is possible. Perhaps even both. But the show uses it simply as “Never”, and doesn’t ever seem to take on the full implications of what it could mean.

The House of the Undying in the novels is absolutely jam-packed with hints and details that tie Daenerys’s story to the narrative in Westeros, expanding the scope of what may be. It’s the seminal moment of prophecy in the series, just as the birth of the dragons was the seminal moment of magic before it. To see it all stripped away, not an iota of it, is puzzling. Its value to a multi-year single narrative cannot be downplayed: as standalone novels might foreshadow a plot twist early on in the first few pages, the prophecies foreshadow things that will happen years down the road. You have a story that’s going to run a long time, and you have ripe opportunities to seed hints of the future so that, three or four seasons on, some viewers will go, “Ah-ha! So that’s what that meant. It’s amazing that they’ve planned so far ahead!”

There’s a real benefit to being able to awe and impress readers or viewers alike with such foresight: it shows there’s a plan, that there’s a sense that every thing they’ve read or watched has been building to these epiphanies. In the end, it increases audience engagement, creates audience participation in a sense. The biggest dedicated communities to TV shows tend to be very much about shows that are full of mystery and enigma. Lost is of course the monster example here, spawning many communities that speculated wildly over very little tidbit of the mythology of the show, over every symbol that might indicate something of what was ahead. In the days before the wide-spread of the internet, The X-Files and Twin Peaks also caused a stir as people tried to get to the “Truth” just like Maulder, or tried to figure out who killed Laura Palmer.

It’s absolutely true that the track records of shows like these often falter at the end, “collapsing” under the weight of all the mythology. But there’s a simple reason for that: they made it up as they went along. That’s the nature of network television, that plans are never made more than a season in advance, that everything is mutable. Lost, in particular, threw out all sorts of ideas and then casually forgot about those that didn’t “stick” because some new take on the story was being devised each season. So the fact that Game of Thrones has a set series of books, and a definite beginning, middle, and end planned (an end that they can and have learned from Martin in advance) means they ought to be able to take advantage of that. The mysteries? They have had answers for sixteen years now, some of them. There’s no reason for them to hold back, to wait, when they know that they have an answer, and that it’s a satisfactory one. (One might argue that the answerss GRRM game them aren’t satisfactory, and that’s why they haven’t started making more use of those mysteries to expand the scope of the narrative; color me very dubious.)

Reading the auguries is an age-old habit, something shamans were doing when man was still mastering fire, and I think that this tendency to search for meaning and to rationalize an understanding of the future is deeply embedded within the make-up of the human psyche. It’s why mystery is a genre all by itself, because the puzzles they present are something that engage us, and it’s why hundreds and thousands of discussions — enough to double the size of the whole series to date, I expect — have been spent on various forums across the web on the mysteries and enigmas of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Or, to take a different tack, when you engage someone with something, that encourages them to want to immerse themselves more in it — they want to learn about it. Take your daughter to her first football game, and she’ll start asking you what’s going on, and who the guy with the football is, and why that flag was thrown. It’s a mystery to her, but the engagement in it makes her want to learn… and the next thing you know, she’ll be eager to watch the games with Dad on Sunday, and start shouting at the screen when the QB throws another interception. The mysteries have begun to part, and their excitement deepens… and, you know, she’s spending that time with you, right? You’re communing over this game.

It’s just a part of what we are, and what we do. And television and film has shown again and again — perhaps from the first time anyone heard, “Rosebud”, whispered — that mystery is a tremendous hook. It’s why the mysteries are so numerous in the narrative, because Martin — who sees genre as furniture, who doesn’t see why a fantasy can’t have mystery threads and horror threads — realizes what it can do for readers. Deciphering what “daughter of three” means, attempting to figure out what three fires might be lit? That’s heady stuff to many fans. And the more casual fans? They may hear the results of these speculations, one way or another, and they’ll go, “Wow, I had no idea.” I’ve seen it time and again in my years of managing, as new people come in to join the discussion because it intrigued them so much, or more casual readers saying they stumbled across this theory and they share it excitedly with their friends on a blog. The enigmas are what really bind everyone together.

Fantasy — high fantasy, or epic fantasy if you will — is especially suited to this thanks to the fact that world-building naturally allows you the means of embedding tantalizing hints and mysteries in the story. It’s part of why Middle-earth is so compelling and has such devotion all the years after it’s initial release: readers can explore Middle-earth together, can dive deep into it to understand references to Gil-galad and Luthien that they might not otherwise need to know. It’s because they want to know that it’s so compelling. And if they don’t want to? Their eyes may glaze over a little bit when some history is touched on, but they really want to know if Frodo gets the ring to Mount Doom, and so they keep reading.

In the House of the Undying, there are visions of things to come, shadows of the future that may be way, memories of the past — it all combines in a kaleidoscope of images: a feast of corpses, a sad prince, an aged king pronouncing doom, lies and shadows and, hidden away within it, truth. A flower, say, a blue rose growing from a crack in a wall of ice — that’s a beautiful image, one that ties together several different elements of the overarching story.

Would it be “too obvious”? Probably not — especially not for casual TV viewers, who don’t know a thing, as of yet, regarding blue roses in the setting. The writers can withhold all the pieces to resolve the puzzles (unless one goes to the books directly, of course) and still leave people with the sense that there’s a mystery, that there’s something enigmatic that goes beyond the individual characters and impacts the greater story. They don’t need to be able to answer it now, to guess at what it means now; they just need to know that there’s something bigger.

As Myles McNutt said in a recent chat, it may be that these things will come… they’ll just come later. But some suggested that the obvious time to use these mysteries was in the season when you mean to resolve them, and that seems utterly backward to me. There are mysteries in these novels that were introduced in the first book and which will not be resolved until the final book — and they are among the most compelling things in the narrative, once readers start digging into them. To cut that down to a one-season-and-done story? It’s unthinkable. And though the producers might not go to that extreme, I’d question the idea that they can choose to withhold so much information for so long.

As Bryan Cogman noted, David Benioff has remarked that there’s so much mythology that it can overwhelm the narrative. And this is true. But this speaks directly against the idea of dumping it all in the back end of the show — if it’s too much to drop little pieces now, early in the show’s existence, it’s probably going to be too much to drop big pieces out of the blue later on.

The story is growing, and growing quickly. Suddenly snapping the heads of readers around by failing to have foreshadowed and hinted at some of these future turns is a genuine error, putting too much narrative weight on the here-and-now and too little on the context of past and future in which it is all couched. They have a very rare opportunity to showcase the fact that everything is planned out well in advance, to show that there’s a “tapestry” (to borrow from Sean T. Collins) that goes forward and back into the receding distance beyond what we know. Most shows on television don’t have that opportunity. They should seize hold of it whenever they can. It’s not a question of “overloading” the mythology — it’s that it needs to be seeded early so that viewers are tuned into it. You can’t be a straight-up family-saga/political drama for three, four, five seasons and then suddenly start introducing the deeper mythology: now’s the time.

One can hope they’ll realize this with the third season of the show, at least, and start rectifying their failure to give viewers something deeper to consider than whether Robb Stark’s marriage was a bad idea or a very bad idea.