Has 'Game of Thrones' Gone Soft in Its Later Seasons?

George R.R. Martin, the author behind Game of Thrones, created a harsh and ruthless world Mike Blake

"I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony," German filmmaker Werner Herzog once said, "but chaos, hostility and murder." Whether Herzog, who expressed this sentiment while narrating the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, is a fan of HBO's Game of Thrones is unknown, but he sounds as if he would have enjoyed the series's first few seasons.

Westeros, the setting for the show, is a mythical, medieval land that was once a world without sympathy (and, at least on the map, bears an uncanny resemblance to Great Britain). A character's resilience, integrity, allegiance or innocence had no bearing on his or her lifespan. "All men must die," as the Bravosi salutation ("Valar Morghulis") goes, and in the first few seasons showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were utterly ruthless in their intent to prove it.

Lately, though, Game of Thrones has grown as soft as Samwell Tarly's midsection. In the final episode of last season, beloved character Jon Snow literally died from multiple stab wounds, but reports of his death, it turns out, were greatly exasperated. Last week, Jon's younger half-sister, Arya Stark, was stabbed half as many times (with "the pointy end") in the belly and yet she was last seen stumbling through a crowded street in Braavos looking as if she had simply been overserved. A girl has no vital organs, or so it seems.

True, main characters still perish on Game of Thrones ("Hodor! Hodor! Hodor!") but it seems that for everyone we lose, a character long believed lost returns. Two weeks ago, Benjen Stark, a member of the Night's Watch who was last seen venturing north of the Wall in Season 1—five years ago—turned up. Last Sunday night, it was Sandor Clegane, aka The Hound, who had been MIA for nearly two seasons after losing a parry against Brienne of Tarth and being left to bleed out in the wilderness. If Game of Thrones runs another two seasons, we may even learn the fates of those Russian hit men last seen in the New Jersey Pine Barrens in The Sopranos.

"All men must die" has of late become "Must all men die?" and the show is the lesser for it. It may be no coincidence that GoT, which is based on George R.R. Martin's five-book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, has now surpassed Martin's books in terms of plot lines (Martin, 67, is in the process of writing the sixth novel). In the beginning, Benioff and Weiss took some liberties with Martin's dense narrative, as each tome weighed in at roughly 700 pages. The duo, who have done a remarkable job of butchering the fat from Martin's epic tale, stuck to the script in terms of the fates of major characters.

Ned Stark, for example, was killed off in Martin's first book, titled Game of Thrones, and also met a cruel fate at the end of Season 1. Stark was not only the patriarch of the most important family in the series, then and now, but he was a character of unimpeachable character. Stark was the series' leading man right up until the moment he was beheaded, and yet the show soldiered on.

Stark's beheading was the first of many key player casualties in the quest for the Iron Throne. It mattered not if one was ambitious (Robb Stark), aggrieved (Catelyn Stark), callow (Viserys Targaryen) or sinister (Joffrey), characters were dispatched regularly. Whether the audience adored or despised them was of no consequence. Pity the agent who approached Benioff and Weiss seeking a two-year extension for his client.

The producers of Game of Thrones were no more empathetic to their audience's wishes than Tywin Lannister (who took an arrow to the chest from his own son while seated on a throne not made of iron) or Walder Frey to their enemies. That raw naturalism—or Darwinism—has long been at the core of the show's appeal. Of course, we all wanted Oberyn Martell to slay the Mountain, but the circumstances of his demise, where pride literally goeth before a fall, were unforgettable.

Before this season, no life was safe. An innocent young girl afflicted with greyscale was burned at the stake under the order of her own father. Direwolves are regularly in dire peril, and at least three have perished. No appendage was safe, either: Jaime Lannister lost his right hand and Theon Greyjoy his manhood, certainly an unkinder cut. Westeros was chaos, where only the strong and the savvy—and sometimes, simply the lucky—survived. The night was dark and full of terrors, and the day was hardly better.

Season 6, the first season whose plot is sailing in uncharted waters (presumably somewhere beyond the Narrow Sea), has brought with it an insidious onslaught of hope, empathy and—dare we speak Latin in the plural—dei ex machinae. Begin with Sansa Stark and Theon Greyjoy, holding hands and leaping from atop the fortifications of Winterfell at the end of last season. It may not have been quite a suicidal leap, but are the snow banks at the foot of the castle really that deep and soft? And if so, how does a runaway bride such as Stansa dig herself out?

Let's suspend our disbelief on that one as we wonder about the timeliness of Brienne appearing exactly at the right moment to rescue Sansa and Theon, and then later Benjen doing the same for her crippled younger brother (and his own nephew), Bran Stark. In the 21st century, we text people we are supposed to meet when we are both in the same bar because we cannot locate them, and yet in Westeros, the serendipitous rendezvous is second nature.

There is a suspension of disbelief we fans of Sunday night television are willing to commit to: in The Walking Dead, zombies roam the suburbs of Atlanta and not all of them wear Braves uniforms, and in Gam of Thrones dragons soar overhead in Westeros. We accept the supernatural, but insist that the natural remain grounded. Hence, The Walking Dead betrayed viewers by allowing Glenn to escape certain death by crawling beneath a dumpster and Game of Thrones has betrayed its viewers with Jon Snow's resurrection (as much as we all love the raven-haired lug, who was a messianic figure long before he died).

The Hound's return last Sunday was far-fetched (no pun intended), but was it any more incredible than his not hearing his entire community of new friends being slaughtered as he was off chopping wood? And what of Ser Jorah Mormont, who has been afflicted with greyscale, that incurable and fatal disease? He has been commanded by the woman he lives to serve, Daenerys Targaryen, to "find a cure." You almost expect him to organize a Dothraki 5-K to raise money for research. Either way, one gets the sickly feeling that Ser Jorah will defeat this disease.

Game of Thrones was never the show to tune into for happy endings (Happy Endings was, before it was canceled), but lately that has been the case. Benioff and Weiss would be wise to heed the words of Herzog and to recall that the protagonist of his film, the audacious and fearless Timothy Treadwell, ends up being eaten by a bear. Valar morghulis, indeed.