Now that Game of Thrones is winding down into its final two seasons, it’s time to acknowledge a truth: The dragons are the worst part of the story.
Before you prepare to rain fire and blood, they undeniably provide impressive visuals filled with flash and spectacle, and they’re useful in winning battles. They’ve given Daenerys Targaryen a sense of gravitas and a badass nickname — “the mother of dragons.” In the sub-culture of Game of Thrones conspiracy theories, they provide useful fodder for fans theorizing about secret Targaryens. When they’re onscreen, they’re an instant way for your Game of Thrones normie friends to identify what you’re watching. But in terms of fantasy narratives, dragons are as basic as white bread. Game of Thrones can do better.
George R. R. Martin has said that back in 1991 when he was first conceptualizing A Song of Ice and Fire, he initially wasn’t sure about including dragons. His “maybe not” instincts were right. Granted, this applies to the show far more, as the books do a better job of giving equal attention to more compelling creatures, like direwolves. But since the show is the immediate canon for the time being — as it has concrete release dates and the books do not — its time for Game of Thrones to tone down the dragons.
Now, this isn’t calling for the annihilation of Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion. But the world of Westeros and Essos has a fascinating series of religious pantheons, including trees with faces and fickle unseen gods that resurrect people. It’s got weird unexplored corners, like the Shadow Lands, and mysterious history like the Doom of Valyria. It’s got face-changing assassins, ice zombies that were created by nature creatures who now regret it, and diseases that turn men into rock monsters. It’s even got gigantic wolves who forge psychic bonds with humans, for fuck’s sake!
Dragons, on the other hand, could be in any old fantasy world, from Middle-earth, Harry Potter, How to Train Your Dragon, and the Inheritance Cycle, to Naomi Novik’s clever twist in her novel Uprooted.
Dragons have their time and place in pop culture. This is not disparaging the creatures, but in the world of Game of Thrones, they’re the least original aspect.
Every shot of Daenerys’s dragons is the same old thing. Dramatic music swells as they fly overhead, spewing jets of fire onto various douchebags.
While the shots of the dragons are satisfying and impressive in special effects terms, they’re generic as hell. In the moments they’re onscreen, Game of Thrones could be any fantasy world.
Every other layer of its rich world is more unique than the dragons. While this isn’t calling for dragon discrimination, it is calling for the show to spend more time featuring other, more original aspects of Westeros and Essos. Give Ghost more screen time, expand upon vaguely referenced people like the crannogmen, and dive more into R’hllor and what it means that Sandor Clegane can see images in the flames. The material is all there.
There’s a reason Ian McShane infamously referred to Game of Thrones as “tits and dragons,” and it’s because those are its most basic elements. The story is far more nuanced, of course — but the dragons don’t show it.
Game of Thrones Season 7 is currently airing Sunday nights on HBO.