The simultaneous declines of Westeros and Pittsburgh
It’s never fun to see the entertainment vessel you love abandon its core and travel an alternate path. We invest many hours watching things that make us happy. It is a wonderful thing when we find these escapes in life. We love watching the product grow from the beginning, we love analyzing details as things evolve, and if we’re lucky we love experiencing the jubilation of this thing reaching the apex of their field. Few things in life give us greater pleasure than experiencing this growth cycle. While the peak is glorious, the journey along the way bares the most fruit. It is what makes the results feel earned and it is what delivers true satisfaction. The enjoyment received feels worthy of the time invested.
This is why it can be so frustrating to watch a product, that delivered all these positive feelings, fade away with a whimper due to being mismanaged. For me, this describes Game of Thrones and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Don’t worry I’ll be keeping things spoiler free.
Game of Thrones was/is a fully enriched book universe, created by George RR Martin, which HBO adapted to our television screens with great success. D.B. Weiss and David Benioff were the showrunners tasked with guiding the Game of Thrones ship in its adaptation to television.. The ship was loaded with a plethora of source material and great characters. This greatly benefited both Weiss and Benioff for the majority of the show’s run. It is akin to painting by numbers. You can still make it look great, but if you don’t have to create anything from scratch it affords the opportunity to work on the details. This sounds familiar to a certain hockey team.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were an exciting team with all the hard to get pieces. Their ship was also full of great characters and much like Weiss and Benioff, Jim Rutherford had a ton of source material to work with. Ray Shero (and Craig Patrick) had left behind Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Murray, Chris Kunitz, Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel, Tom Kuhnhackl, Scott Wilson, Derrick Pouliot, Simon Despres, Oskar Sundqvist, and Teddy Blueger). Not a bad cast of characters to work with by any stretch. Yeah, some characters are way better than others, but it’s tough to not be compelling with the high-end players Pittsburgh was in possession of. It is an enviable starting point and it is definitely not a bad situation to for a general manager to find themselves in. Most of the heavy lifting in Pittsburgh was done before the job even began for Rutherford just like it was for Weiss and Benioff. A paint by numbers operation.
The trio of D.B. Weiss, David Benioff and Jim Rutherford were able to do some great things with the assets they were given. Game of Thrones became perhaps the biggest TV show of all-time and the Penguins were able to win back to back Stanley Cup Championships. An achievement no team had accomplished since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings. With the core elements already provided Weiss, Benioff, and Rutherford were each able to put their own touch on the product and contributed to its elevation in status. The stars were great. The plots were intriguing. The attention to detail was enriching. Everything felt right. Mostly all people consuming both products were incredibly satisfied.
A huge part of what made the Penguins and Game of Thrones ascension to the top so satisfying was the journey itself. Pittsburgh transformed and committed itself to an exciting and fast brand of hockey in a departure from being incredibly top heavy. HBO was able to take the book characters and have them brilliantly come to life on the screen. Every interaction and every detail was well crafted and built up. Everything was earned. The results matched the process. As a result both entities were mowing down the competition because they each had star power and attention to detail. All the pieces had a place and they fit effortlessly into the machine of success. Until they didn’t.
As we know all things must come to an end, even the great ones.. This era of Penguins hockey and Game of Thrones are no exception. The things that previously made the journey special and rewarding became ignored. Some parts of the machine were in need of replacement. Others needed maintenance. Neither seemed to be a top priority. The expensive parts were still working at a high level so the other stuff didn’t seem important. This breeds complacency and shields introspective reflection.
The journey, which was so rewarding, started to provide more questions than answers. These were not the good kind of questions. Those questions engage the viewer to contemplate complex themes and theories. The new questions are shaped with doubt about the people in charge of directing the franchises. Game of Thrones started to become results based and felt rushed when the source material started to dry up. It was about getting all of the characters to a certain place with no care for how they got there. Similar issues were starting to happen in Pittsburgh. Results were still reasonably good, but for those paying close attention there were signs of the foundation crumbling.
Pittsburgh bailed on their exciting and fast brand of hockey and became enamored with being tough and hard to play against. Game of Thrones went from a brilliant political drama with a fantasy dynamic to something you’d likely see Michael Bay direct. The characters were no longer staying true to their development. The choices characters made were no longer organic. Characters who we’ve known to be incredibly smart started to make foolish choices so the writers could move the plot along. It was writing for convenience and not love. The show became all about having big moments with big impacts on the plot, whether it was deserved or not. The expectations were ramped up. The stakes were ramped up. The spectacle was ramped up. Everything should have been great. It wasn’t. The investment of time and resources over the years wasn’t supposed to culminate in a rushed and unsatisfying way. The big moments weren’t supposed to feel empty and unearned.
Both the Penguins and Game of Thrones lost their way. Absent source material the men who were tasked with guiding the ship never found their compass. They became directionless. In the case of D.B. Weiss and David Benioff it was because the George RR Martin stopped writing. Although, in fairness to Weiss and Benioff they didn’t sign up to write fan fiction. Regardless, the depth and care for characters have since evaporated much like Martin’s work ethic.
In Jim Rutherford’s case his source material was running out because the salary cap forces all general managers to make difficult decisions with their depth. Players seek raises as free agents and it makes it hard to keep everything together. This reality was compounded with Rutherford’s propensity to use futures like he had a Braavosian supply of them. As the resources dried up Rutherford could no longer fix self-inflicted errors with the ease he enjoyed earlier in his tenure. He had carelessly burned through many of the Penguins draft picks. Futures are the get out of jail free cards for general managers in a win now environment. Trading them away doesn’t have an immediate negative impact on the current roster. The consequences of moving them aren’t realized until further down the road. Eventually, you need to atone for these choices. Like the Lannisters, general managers always have to pay their debts in some form or another. Rutherford’s attempt to atone for these errors has him now contemplating moving some of his main characters. Whether it is a show or a hockey team you can’t screw up the plot of the main characters. It will kill the product. The stars drive the success. Without them you are nothing. It’s a damning indictment when you don’t have a plan for the stars and how to assist their success and growth. Failing to provide depth to characters/players is a betrayal of what made the team and show elite. A fully realized plot has depth and enriches your best pieces. Absent depth you have a ceiling of good. Something that can be incredibly frustrating after experiencing greatness. Good becomes a let down. Good becomes a disappointment. Good isn’t enjoyable because of the mistakes made in full view.
Both franchises reached peaks very few do in their respective fields. Both franchises also ruined their arcs with a lack of vision. The prior success was earned and rewarding. The fall from grace has also been earned and disappointing. For Game of Thrones there isn’t much it can do to make up for the lack care they’ve shown the past two years. It is ending this Sunday. Fortunately, for the Penguins their show still has a few more seasons left. Will the writing improve?
Thanks for reading!