(Warning: spoilers. Obviously.)
So, the final season of Game of Thrones. If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past two months, you’ve probably noticed that an awful lot of people on the Internet did not like it. Many of those people have produced detailed YouTube videos explaining how and why the conclusion to this much-beloved show was so unsatisfying, and I strongly recommend checking them out.
As for me, I thought it wasn’t that bad – it was still very watchable. That said, there were issues, especially in the last two episodes, mostly linked to there not being enough time to do everyone justice.
I was very satisfied with the first two episodes, covering the build-up to the big battle with the Night King. By the time Episode 3 began, I was suitably tense and trying to emotionally prepare myself for the character deaths that were undoubtedly coming (made even harder by the fact that I’d already been put through the wringer having seen Avengers: Endgame the previous day). The battle itself was an intense, desperate clash worthy of the build-up – well, aside from the fact that because of the lighting, it was very difficult to make out what was going on sometimes.
It is true that after seven seasons of emphasising that the Army of the Dead were the real threat everybody should be focussing on, instead of squabbling over who gets to sit on the Iron Throne, it didn’t feel quite right that the former conflict should be resolved before the latter and not serve as the ultimate climax of the show. But I think that scenario was difficult to avoid. First, even if the battle with the Night King was the climax, there would still have been the question of “Now what?” when it was over and the dust had settled. Second, there’s the problem of geography: the “good guys”, Daenerys and the Starks, are in the North, and so are the Army of the Dead – these opposing sides pretty much have to clash before a decisive showdown with Cersei and her allies in the South can take place. It will be interesting to see if George R R Martin can arrange the pieces to make things play out differently in the books.
Anyway, once the Night King was defeated, there came the last three episodes which had the job of wrapping up the whole show. And rather like how characters moved impossibly fast between locations in Season 7, the show deviated noticeably from its own rules of reality for the sake of the story. The big worry was that Daenerys’s troops were so depleted after fighting the Army of the Dead, she wouldn’t stand a chance against Cersei, whose own forces were bolstered by the Iron Fleet and the Golden Company. When Dany loses a dragon in Episode 4, the situation looks even worse. But when Dany does launch her attack on King’s Landing in Episode 5, the battle is totally one-sided in her own favour. Additional Unsullied and Dothraki have respawned like units in a video game; not that Dany really needs them, as she does most of the work herself with her one remaining dragon, Drogon, who suffers no injuries because the scorpions which landed multiple hits on a flying dragon in Episode 4 are now totally useless. One also wonders exactly how dragons produce fire in this universe; it’s clearly not the same as How to Train Your Dragon, where the dragons only have a certain number of shots before running out of fuel, since Drogon is able to produce blasts that can level stone buildings over and over again without any sign of exhaustion.
The emphasis placed on Tyrion begging Dany to stop her attack once the city surrenders makes it rather predictable what’s going to happen next – not that you want to believe it, since Dany suddenly deciding to needlessly kill thousands of innocent people is a major shift and a disservice to one of Game of Thrones‘s best characters. This could actually have worked if it had been given more buildup; Daenerys, who assigned herself the mission of bringing down tyrants, ending her character arc by becoming a tyrant herself could have been a great tragedy. Instead, it feels more like an attempt to oversimplify the endgame and allow the story to be wrapped up as quickly as possible. Having a conclusion where ultimately nobody wins the Iron Throne, and the monarchical system is re-invented instead, does make sense from a storytelling point of view; it brings the story to a proper resolution and sticks to the theme that those who want power are usually those who least deserve it. But to make that ending happen, Dany needed to either willingly give up the throne – which would require a lot more time on character development – or die. So the writers have her abruptly turn into a villain who clearly needs to be eliminated for the greater good, and Jon Snow reluctantly obliges.
There are signs of haste in other areas, too. The fates of some characters, like Arya becoming an explorer or Jamie crawling back to Cersei like an addict needing his fix, seem less like something they have real motivation for, and more like the writers not knowing what else to do with them. Jon secretly being the true Targaryen heir to the Iron Throne ultimately has little real impact on the plot, and the prophecy of Azor Ahai is never given any resolution, among other loose threads. And yet there was still time for us to watch Tyrion rearranging chairs for about a minute?
Bran becoming king isn’t a totally terrible idea; Westeros could do a lot worse than a ruler who won’t actively cause trouble and will just let the right people do their jobs. (The competence of the Small Council is another matter, given that the current Master of Coin previously expressed unfamiliarity with the concept of loans.) But rather than saying that out loud, Tyrion declares that Bran should be king because nobody “has a better story” than him. I would disagree, given that Bran’s segments were often among the most slow and boring in both the books and the show, at least when he was spending his days being dragged around on a sled by the unappreciated Meera Reed.
What makes the writing issues especially unfortunate is that everything else about the show was still fantastic: the direction, the production, the music, and most certainly the acting. Everybody on-screen was giving it their all, and with their skill and how invested the audience already are in these characters, they bring even the most poorly scripted scenes as close as they can get to working. But if there’s one thing we can learn from Season 8 of Game of Thrones, it’s that no matter how good everything else is, you need good writing to hold it together. In On Writing, Stephen King says that you can write about anything “as long as you tell the truth” – meaning, your writing needs to be honest and reflect reality, at least as you see it. And in its last two seasons, Game of Thrones hasn’t been quite as honest as it once was.