In its final season, Game of Thrones tried to subvert expectations. It kind of forgot about character development. But more than 20 years ago, Berserk got its villain right.
Game of Thrones finished airing more than a year ago. Many have decided to forget about it than remember the travesty that was the final season. Why did the dragons die? Why did Dany transform so suddenly?
Above all, why did the people of Winterfell hide in the crypts during an Ice Zombie apocalypse?
One thing that helps answer these questions is to compare it to an anime series called Berserk. It is a dark fantasy series, based on the manga by Kentaro Miura, that started its run in the late 1990s.
In a lot of ways, Berserk is similar to Game of Thrones. It is set in a medieval era with protagonists trying to grapple with their ambitions, lust, morality, and duties. It has relentless violence, both physical and sexual.
But above all, both have characters who are deeply flawed, who want the world in their grasp, and who collapse into madness when their dreams crumble into dust.
In Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targeryen is a righteous woman who wants to take over Westeros, and to break the wheel of tyrants who had come to rule it. In Berserk, Griffith is a nobody who becomes the leader of a legendary army, eventually wishing to become the new king.
In both the series, we get to know these characters as relatable and human. They had enormous ambition but we mostly felt that their moments of cruelty were necessary sacrifices in the gritty medieval world. In this sense, both Griffith and Daenerys are well written characters who make you root for them.
However, the way their character arcs are executed in the final act makes all the difference.
And Berserk handled it much better than Game of Thrones.
The real villains are the friends we made along the way
At some point in both the series, our positive understanding of these characters starts changing. While people argue with hindsight that Daenerys was always an evil tyrant and destined to become the Mad Queen, the major shift in the character happened only in the last season.
In Berserk, the shift in our perception of Griffith starts happening midway through the series. It happens gradually so that his transformation into a demon is believable but ghastly, hitting you in the guts.
We see Griffith going through tremendous hardships to set up his mercenary army, the Band of the Hawks.
When people in the Band die, he feels pained.
When the Band faces a shortage of money, he goes as far as selling his own body.
This makes it all the more rewarding when Griffith’s skills are finally recognised by the king, and the Band becomes an official part of the king’s army — at a stroke upgrading the lower class members of the Band into nobility. It’s a dream come true.
Of course, it all comes crashing down.
The Fall from Grace
Contains spoilers for Berserk!
Things take a bitter turn as Griffith asks the protagonist, Guts, to kill a nobleman who’s scheming to assassinate Griffith. Guts, ever the obedient soldier, does so, but also ends up killing the nobleman’s innocent child. This disturbs Guts no end.
In another incident, our hero Guts overhears Griffith talking to the princess of the kingdom. This is when he realizes that Griffith doesn’t see Guts and the soldiers of the Band as equals. Griffith definitely feels pain when they suffer and is devoted to them, but he also sees them as cogs in a machine devoted to accomplish his dream.
Dismayed, Guts decides to leave the Band of the Hawks.
It was implied that Griffith had some feelings for Guts, so Griffith is shocked to the bone on hearing that Guts has left. In a total craze, he assaults the princess, and he is caught in the act.
Griffith is imprisoned in a torture chamber.
The Band of the Hawk are almost massacred by the rest of the army.
This makes Griffith lust for vengeance. And when he gets back on his feet, he has transformed into a total demon.
Character development vs Foreshadowing
When the finale of Game of Thrones aired over a year ago, some fans supported the writers. These fans pointed out that Dany’s eventual transformation into the Mad Queen was foreshadowed since the beginning of the series.
While this may be true, there is a difference between foreshadowing and character development. Consider this quote from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight.
You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
This Harvey Dent’s statement was foreshadowing for what Harvey was about to become.
But Harvey Dent losing the love of his life, losing his face, and getting swayed by the Joker’s mind games is character development.
The latter is what makes a believable and realistic character. Mere foreshadowing alone is not enough. In Game of Thrones, the only loss that Daenerys faced was Missandei, whose death seemed like an after thought.
In Berserk, we’re left no doubts that Griffith has lost absolutely everything and because of his own actions.
He has lost his position in the hierarchy of nobles.
He has lost many of his comrades.
He was imprisoned and tortured beyond healing.
This makes his slow descent into evil almost inevitable, giving new meaning to the introductory narration on whether humans really have free will.
Game of Thrones’ biggest mistake was to sacrifice character development. Berserk’s biggest achievement was to preserve it — even for its villains.