May 20, 2019
To start with, since the title is a bit inflammatory, let’s make something clear — "Game of Thrones" was a very good, at times great show that pushed the boundaries of television. It has come under scrutiny in the final season not because it is outright bad, or because people are out here looking for things to complain about, but because HBO set an insanely high bar with their early adaptations of George R.R. Martin’s work.
Disclaimer No. 2 — if you happened to think it was great, that is swell for you and you are welcome to share your thoughts on why. If you are the sort of person who thinks everyone should just shut up and feel the same way you do (whether you liked or disliked it), my advice would be to grow up, Peter Pan. Sports and dragon shows and comic book movies are simultaneously not important at all and a huge part of our lives. Anything can be valuable or important based on the time we invest in them, no matter how silly it may seem on the surface.
Anyway, here are some scattered thoughts about what has bothered me about watching "Game of Thrones" over the last two seasons, and how that impacted what I thought was a poor finale.
WARNING: Spoilers will follow. There is also light discussion of The Wire, The Sopranos, and Avengers: Endgame in the final section, which you should avoid if you are still trying to go into those blind, for some reason.
Daenerys Targaryen devolving into “The Mad Queen” was not far fetched if you paid a reasonable amount of attention to the show. In fact, you didn’t need to keep track of the dozens of related fan theories on the subject to do so — Tyrion Lannister made sure to beat you over the head with all the violence she committed over eight seasons early in Sunday’s finale, while imprisoned as a traitor to his queen.
Getting to the point where Jon Snow needed to stab her in the gut in the throne room, however, was not earned by the build up, as so many of the climactic moments during the show’s eight-season run were.
Death is probably the most-frequently cited example of how "Game of Thrones" initially stood out from the pack, and for good reason. We saw traditional-seeming protagonists gutted and beheaded for making sloppy or uncritical decisions in a vicious power game. Even characters who were given limited run, like Oberyn Martell, were given time to explain the motivations behind their actions before the reaper came to claim them.
The pivot of Khaleesi from well-meaning conqueror into barbequer of innocents was just one of the many examples of how rushed the story became over the final two seasons. Jaime Lannister’s pivoting back and forth between allies (and lovers) undermined what otherwise had set up to be a convincing, thoughtful redemption arc in order to give him a cheesy death alongside Cersei. Dragons were killed seemingly at random, important moments from episodes past were thrown out to justify new developments, and eventually we ended up in a place where the best you could say is, “At least the Starks got a mostly happy ending.”
(We’ll revisit that idea in a bit.)
HBO gave their showrunners as much rope as they possibly could have wanted to tie up the story, whether we’re talking runtime or budget. Rather than taking it all, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss confirmed they put episode caps on Season 7 & 8 themselves because they thought that was all the story warranted. Self-editing is an important trait, one I will certainly never master, but nobody was going to punish HBO for giving them more "Game of Thrones" to watch, more character development to invest in.
Many of the people who enjoyed how the show ended (or at least found more enjoyment in how the final season played out than I did) will point out, “The story isn’t necessarily bad, it was just rushed!” But the delivery and timing of a message is a choice storytellers make, and is thus part of the story. HBO’s showrunners chose poorly in this department, and it dampened the impact of what should have been a great final run for Daenerys as the alpha dog on the block.
"Thrones" would spend hours of time in the early years helping the audience to see from the point-of-view of a character, and they abandoned the practice it when it mattered most. We didn’t need a manifesto letter from the show’s platinum-blonde queen, but more time with her in the inner sanctum exploring her psyche would have gone a long way.
To the bullet points.
• Revisiting the “happy ending” for the Starks: Sansa and Arya stood atop a castle wall in Winterfell this season as Sansa echoed the words of their father: “When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.” Apparently, the pack was only needed to survive until the finale, where Arya decided she was better off playing the lead in a Pirates of the Caribbean remake.
Thumbs up for female empowerment, but could we stick to a family ethos for… a month? That doesn’t seem like a huge request.
• Bran Stark sitting on the Iron Throne was a bit silly for numerous reasons. A quick run through.
• The very idea that a leader can be chosen through a fair process seems naive, given the people we see assembled in what ends up being the finale’s most important scene. Characters doing what they believe “is best” for the greater good led to death over and over again (see: Varys last week, Ned Stark in Season 1, and so forth) regardless of who they took up their cause for.
The frailty of putting your faith into the hands of one person (or even a small group of people) should have been brought into focus by Daenerys’ sudden descent into madness. Dozens of the most important people in the world took up arms for a person they believed to be better than the rest, who had proven she would look out for the downtrodden, only for her to turn King’s Landing into ash. All it took to look past this and continue down a similar path was a decent speech from Tyrion and a bit of banter about brothel building. Now everybody is just singing Kumbaya and believing it’ll all work out?
Without going too far down this wormhole, I’ll say this: "Thrones" spent much of the last two seasons invalidating the core of what got them here. A few carefully-collected quotes and callbacks do not change this.
It’s unreasonable to expect heroes to be thrown out in fiction altogether. There is something to be said for the traditional idea of good vs. evil and the ease with which we can consume it.
But "Thrones" bucked this trend in many ways during the best years of the show. The Starks were largely viewed as the “good guys” in the early seasons, and they had nearly everything taken from them because their enemies were more cynical and power-minded people than they were. Intelligence, tactics, and ruthlessness were rewarded, not titles or intent.
This is part of what elevated "Thrones" into discussions with shows like The Wire in the pantheon of great TV. Actions of all kinds had consequences. Good and bad were not necessarily important. As Caersei Lannister gently explained to Littlefinger way back in Season 2, there is no substitute for power.
There are different ways to create great TV. The Wire’s gift was showing how the influences of the world around the show’s characters created inescapable cycles. Whether it was a cop with a drinking problem, a corner drug dealer, a calculating assassin, or a charismatic junkie, the weight of living in poverty in inner-city Baltimore was powerfully clear. You try to take what’s there for you, because someone else will make the decision for you otherwise.
The Sopranos showed classic mafioso violence, sure, but also the side of a mob boss no one ever sees — in therapy sessions discussing his fears, in dream sequences to explore the weight of death and anxiety — to deconstruct the sort of character we’ve seen 100 times in thousands of different scenarios. Critically, most of the main characters in both of these shows were brutally murdered when life caught up to them.
In the end, "Thrones" became a Stark story in the way that the original Star Wars trilogy is a Skywalker story. There is nothing inherently wrong with these sorts of stories, and as Marvel just showed with Endgame this year, you can pull off an ending in this kind of tale that satisfies millions of people at once. Marvel was also not trying to weave tales together of incest and politics and consequence, and in the end, the heroes were always going to come out on top.
But "Thrones" was supposed to be a different sort of product than that, and it was different for a long time. It was a show where men with noble intentions were treated by more cynical men and women as stepping stones; where religious zealots could kidnap the most powerful people in the world only to eventually be blown up in their most sacred building; where you were only as strong as your weakest moment and your best alliance.
What HBO delivered will almost certainly be consumed over and over again by millions of fans for years to come. But it was a far cry from the show it once was, and the ending that could have been.
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