Something a lot of TV series and film franchises miss the mark on is how to raise the stakes from one season or film to the next. They instinctively go towards having another “boss” to fight leading to a final showdown with the Final Boss, or creating some sort of Bigger Bad leading up to The Big Bad. When one big bad is supplanted by a bigger big bad, we end up with dull writing following a wash-rinse-repeat cycle. We don’t need to repeat in stories; we could just rewatch the existing material to do that. New material should be, as the name implies, new.
Raising the stakes is also exactly as the name implies. It is “raising the boss?” No. It’s raising the stakes — increasing what the characters have at stake. What’s at stake is anything the characters care strongly about and is actually being threatened.
Even every basic Rom-Com gets this formula right: The protagonist is swimming along fine in their life, la ti da. Then, they meet the romantic interest — now they have something new to care about. One thing left to do, just have something risk ruining that romance. Ta da! There’s your film’s plot.
Before jumping into how this plays out in Game of Thrones, probably the best example of failing to properly raise the stakes recently has been The Walking Dead.
Season 2 did a tremendous job in raising the stakes. Our group of survivors comes across a farm and builds a tenuous alliance with Hershel Greene’s group. This alliance represents a significant increase is not only short-term survival, but long-term security. The farm isn’t the most defensible place, but it has resources, can grow food, and the two united groups are fairly strong when working together. What’s more, Glenn and Maggie’s romance now gives Glenn something new to be invested in, and it also represents a source of optimism for the entire group. There is a lot at stake here, and we didn’t have it in Season 1.
The subsequent seasons then drop the ball. We get a series of different relatively-secure locations (the prison, Woodberry, Alexandria), but they all represent the exact same thing being at stake — a fairly large and defended community offering the prospect of long-term security. And oh, if you thought The Governor was a big bad, wait until you meet Negan, and whoever’s after Negan, promise he’ll be even more evil or something. Snooze.
Say My Stakes
Okay, one more non-Game of Thrones example. Breaking Bad is an excellent example of raising the stakes. At the start, Walt is just out to make enough money to cover his medical bills and take care of his family when he dies. Then, he gets in with Gus’s super lab, and the fortune he stands to make multiplies. Instead of his family just being okay, he can leave them a fortune — but at the same time, Gus threatens Walt’s family, so they are now also at stake. After Gus’s defeat, Walt doesn’t meet some new Big Bad. It isn’t the Neo-Nazis or Lydia or Declan or even Hank. Even though there are antagonists, there’s not Big Bad. The final seasons are about Walt building up his own meth empire, and with that gaining a new sense of identity and purpose. That new identity is what’s at stake, as well as trying to make that identity not undermine his relationship with his family, and mostly Walt Jr.. It’s not necessarily something more at stake, but it is something different, and appropriately significant to Walt.
While the final seasons of Breaking Bad did draw some criticism, just imagine if it followed the Wash-Rinse-Repeat cycle. Gus is replaced with an even more ruthless and violent operative from the Mexican cartel that we’ve never met before. Thanks, but we just finished watching that show.
Ned’s Dead, Now What?
One of my favorite memories of watching Game of Thrones came in episode 1.10 when Robb Stark is made King in the North. I got goosebumps then, and still do when rewatching it. But, think about this moment in terms of what’s at stake for the characters.
When Ned is in a dungeon and Robb calls his banners, we know what’s at stake: Ned’s life, Sansa’s life, Arya’s life if she’s caught, and the lives of Robb and his bannermen if they lose the fight. But then Joffrey orders Ned’s execution. Shouldn’t this mean there’s much less at stake going forward? There’s literally one less head they stand to lose.
Instead of having less at stake though, we suddenly get something very different. Robb can no longer seek to rescue Ned, but he can seek vengeance. But that’s not really it. The Karstarks and Umbers and Theon don’t pledge themselves to the cause of answering Ned’s execution; they’re now fighting for independence and freedom from being under the thumb of the Iron Throne. Robb doesn’t just have justice at stake, he has a kingdom. The lives of his father’s bannermen are now the lives of his subjects, and with that comes a lot more responsibility and a lot more to lose.
Night King’s Dead, Now What?
With the defeat of the Night King in episode 8.4, we can ask what has changed in terms of what’s at stake for the characters. Previously they had a realm facing an existential threat. Afterwards, a more secure realm, and security is a perfectly fine thing to have a stake. But, let’s break this down in terms of the characters.
Daenerys doesn’t currently have the throne, so making the realm more secure is a very abstract way to raise the stakes for her. What was at stake for her back in Season 6 was her potential to take the Iron Throne and become queen. After 8.4, it’s basically the same.
Jon doesn’t have any ambition to rule the Seven Kingdoms, even if he has the best claim to the throne. For him, the war ended when Arya shanked the Night King. His people are no longer in jeopardy. At most, he stands to lose a budding romance with Daenerys, or he may alienate his sisters. Unfortunately, he’s spent too little time with Dany, Sansa or Arya for us to feel very invested in those relationships. Had Jon been made aware of his parentage much earlier, with an eye towards claiming the throne after the War for the Dawn, then we’d have something. But, we don’t.
Why Cersei Doesn’t Raise the Stakes
A lot of viewers have complained that Cersei doesn’t make a compelling “Final Boss,” but why is that? It’s not just that many expected the Night King to be the last foe our heroes faced. And, it’s not just that the character has become one dimensional. After all, the Night King was one-dimensional, and a final showdown that wasn’t about resolving rulership of the Seven Kingdoms would have felt equally anti-climactic.
The issue is that she doesn’t represent a significant threat to our heroes. She has a large army between the remaining Lannister soldiers and the Golden Company, but Cersei isn’t going on the offensive. She’s holed up in King’s Landing rather than working to gather new allies or exert more control.
All our heroes really have to do now is wait until Cersei can’t afford to continue paying the Golden Company or for King’s Landing to erupt in riots. The only thing that is at stake is what they choose to put at stake, and the audience doesn’t want to go along for that ride. The show will contrive a showdown in order to advance the plot; it will tell us “they have to deal with Cersei because she’s the Final Boss; she’s a bigger bad, trust us.” But, that just doesn’t ring true to what we’re seeing on screen.
Compare our current state of affairs with one where Cersei had publicly offered terms of peace to the North — this puts Dany’s best chance to take the Iron Throne into jeopardy. Or, what if Euron set out to raid the Bay of Dragons? Now time is of the essence and Dany must quickly work to unseat Cersei.
To be fair to the show, it did properly raise the stakes by introducing the scorpion in Season 7. Before, Daenerys’s dragons were only threatened by boneheaded excursions beyond the Wall. With the scorpions, Dany’s dragons are at stake — the stakes just got raised. The trouble with this, of course, is that they’re only in danger to the extent Daenerys chooses to expose them to danger and she isn’t given a compelling reason to do so.
tl;dr: Raise the stakes by giving the characters something more to care about, and then put that thing in jeopardy. Bigger badder bosses aren’t even necessarily part of the equation.