Why "Plot Armor" Isn't the Big Problem With This Season of 'Game of Thrones'
On "The Long Night," the third episode of Game of Thrones' final season, an unknowable number of soldiers perished at the hands of the Night King and his army of the undead. In addition to ever-loyal knight Jorah Mormont, rough-hewn Night's Watchman Dolorous Edd Tollett, pint-sized leader Lyanna Mormont, fire-sword wielder Beric Dondarrion, and redeemed warrior Theon Greyjoy, countless nameless characters, including a legion of Dothraki fighters, were slaughtered in the Battle of Winterfell. By almost any measurement, the conflict was a bloody massacre.
Despite the carnage on display, after the episode finished a very specific line of criticism began to emerge, which is perhaps best personified by this tweet from Vox co-founder and political journalist Ezra Klein: "Plot armor is more protective against the undead than I expected."
Even outside of the world of policy wonks, the concept has taken hold, and over the last few days, the "plot armor" critique has spread like the green flames of wildfire during the Battle of Blackwater. While some fans on Reddit argued that the amount of plot armor in the episode was "utterly ridiculous," critics at publications like Slate and The Ringer argued that the core characters had "acquired plot armor" and that it "only seemed to thicken" during "The Long Night," which failed to kill off one of the main protagonists of the story, like Jon Snow, Daenerys, Arya, Tyrion, or Sansa. Meanwhile, in a rush to create even more content about the episode, combat veterans and military historians were called in to level their assessments of the battle strategy of the living, with the consensus being "it makes no sense at all."
Picking apart the specifics of a battle plan is hardly a new pastime on the internet, particularly when it comes to popular genre shows and movies, and accusations of "plot armor" have dogged Game of Thrones for ages, intensifying after Jon Snow was brought back from the dead in Season 6. As defined by TV Tropes, a site that catalogs terms like this, plot armor is "when a main character's life and health are safeguarded by the fact that he's the one person who can't be removed from the story." The thinking goes that Jon Snow, despite going one-on-one against a blue-fire breathing dragon, simply can't die anymore because he's essential to the show's endgame. On one level, there's very little to argue with here: obviously, Jon Snow wasn't going to die in "The Long Night," and he won't die in the next episode either. He's going to be around for a little while, and so will Jaime, Tyrion, Cersei, Daenerys, Arya, and Sansa. They're the main characters.
For most genre stories, fans simply accept a fair amount of "plot armor" as part of the storytelling. For example, in Avengers: Endgame there's a moment when Thanos launches a flurry of missiles on the headquarters of the heroes, blowing the pristine glass-covered building to smithereens, but each member of the team slides through the cracks of the building and survives with a handful of cuts and bruises. Then, the battle continues. No one bats an eye because it's a convention of a comic book adventure that sometimes the Avengers will cheat death and escape ridiculous circumstances. You use your imagination and suspend disbelief, particularly when magic powers or, say, dragons are involved.
Why are some less willing to make the same leap when it comes to Game of Thrones? Part of it comes down to tone and the history of the show itself. The cutthroat nature and more "adult" tone of the series, which airs on HBO and has often been compared to more "realistic" shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, has created a type of narrative bloodlust within fan communities for the show that's quite different than a less "mature" work like a Marvel movie. Viewers don't just expect main characters to die; some seem to relish each new brutal shot of misery, making "death pools" at their offices and speculating about who will make it out alive each week. There's a sense of betrayal when the show fails to deliver the gruesome goods.
To a certain extent, this was inevitable. As Game of Thrones balloons in popularity the closer it gets to the series finale, it's unsurprising that this sports-talk-radio-like discussion has set in. If you're engaging in the kind of frantic, reactionary discourse that defines the mad dash to the finale, "plot armor" is a perfect term to project a sense of authority. Once a vaguely insider-ish sounding phrase or bit of specialized lingo gets uttered or written enough times, particularly by taste-makers or pundits with large followings, it tends to metastasize and become a cliché. As someone who frequently writes about Game of Thrones under relatively severe time restrictions, I relate to the urge to reach for a readymade concept like "plot armor" to express a specific idea or describe a particular element of the series. Its widespread usage makes it an effective tool to communicate in shorthand with readers, podcast listeners, or video watchers. They get what you mean.
But the rise of "plot armor" in describing Game of Thrones, along with the equally irritating and sexist use of "Mary Sue," feels like it's part of a larger, more insidious trend in pop culture writing of ceding the linguistic ground to a specific strand of pedantic, know-it-all fandom. Many of the storytelling tics cataloged on a site like TV Tropes are fun to identify and joke about among friends -- the shorthand can also be useful in calling out harmful stereotypes and lazy narrative shortcuts -- but merely being able to identify a resemblance to other classic stories does not necessarily mean the story is doing something "wrong." Over eight seasons, you'd think Game of Thrones would've earned some critical wiggle room, and it's frustrating to see the show get dinged for the type of "sins" you'd find in one of those terminally unfunny and performatively savvy YouTube videos like "Everything Wrong with Star Wars: The Last Jedi" or "10 Dumbest Harry Potter Plot Holes."
That doesn't mean loyal viewers shouldn't fault Game of Thrones for its flaws, praise it for its creative victories, and hold it to the high standard created by the early seasons of the series. (The "let people enjoy things" meme, which is often leveled at critics and interprets all commentary as a nuisance, is similarly juvenile.) There are an infinite number of legitimate gripes to have with how showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have handled the challenge of finishing George R.R. Martin's epic without the assistance of the books for a narrative roadmap. And, obviously, the "The Long Night," which attempted to tie up one of the show's biggest existential conflicts and mount a siege unlike anything in the history of the medium, was not an untouchable 82 minutes of television that can't withstand some thoughtful poking and prodding at the edges.
But are we really going to center jargon like "plot armor" in the conversation going forward? Is this how we want to talk about this show? Can't we find some more vivid language? In his review of "The Long Night" on Rolling Stone, the critic Sean T. Collins put it best when he wrote the following: "So-called 'plot armor' is just another way of saying 'these are the characters the writers are telling a story about.' It’s a valid choice creators have been making since Homer’s heroes attacked Troy."
As ruthless as Game of Thrones was in the past, the show is coming to an end, meaning there's no more time to introduce compelling new characters to replace the ones who get cut down in battle. Besides, there's not much plot left, so it's reasonable to assume some dents will appear in the plot armor soon. With the clocking ticking down, all tropes must die.