***WARNING! THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SEASONS 1-8 OF GAME OF THRONES AND THE ASOIAF BOOKS!***
I’ve defended some of Game of Thrones‘s more questionable or controversial decisions, or, at the very least, accepted them, even if I didn’t always understand them. Literature and television are different mediums, and translating one to the other is not always seamless. I appreciate the hard work that everyone – cast, crew, producers, everyone involved in the making of this series – put forth into turning a beloved book series into an epic genre-bending show that drew in millions of fans across the world. It built an enduring legacy, and has deserved the huge amount of awards and recognition it has earned across its run. This is obviously a show made with a huge amount of dedication and passion, and people have watched it so closely and loved it so dearly because of that.
That brings us to Season 8, which recently finished airing after a year and a half hiatus after season 7. The final season, where viewers learned the fates of their favorite characters and the identity of who would reign over Westeros from the fearsome Iron Throne. But now that it is over, and the dust has settled, there has been a massive amount of backlash from fans and critics. For the first time in the series, I agree with a large portion of it.
Do I think the ending sucked? No. But I was left wanting.
I’m not opposed to Daenerys as the “Mad Queen,” and the ultimate “villain” of the show. I’m not opposed to Jaime turning back to Cersei. I’m not opposed to Bran being elected king, and I’m not opposed to Sansa being made Queen in the North. In fact, I have very little issue with what was done this past season on Game of Thrones… my issues lie in how they happened. The root of that is in the pacing. And the writing.
Game of Thrones used to shine because of it’s subtle scenes – conversations between characters which may seem trivial at first, but convey motivation, emotion, and shed light on other plot points and decisions in a meaningful and often masterful way. Of course, much of this can be chalked up to the source material, the ASoIaF books by George R. R. Martin, but some – such as the conversation between Robert and Cersei in season 1, where the pair discuss their marriage – are a show-only invention. Those scenes – introspective scenes, scenes were characters let down their barriers, where we can really get into their thoughts and feelings and see into their development, have always been more vital to the show than cool battles and brilliant effects. Yes, those scenes are excellent too – the battle at the Blackwater and Battle of the Bastards are some of the most visually striking and powerful battle scenes ever seen on television. But scenes like Ygritte’s death carry more emotional weight because we saw the full development of her relationship with Jon, and we knew how she felt being betrayed by him, and how he felt knowing he would have to betray her. Scenes like the revelation of Jon’s parentage through Bran’s vision of Jon’s birth tugged at the viewer’s hearts because we knew how Jon felt about being a bastard, and we simultaneously come to realize how much Ned loved Lyanna – and Jon – to keep that secret for so long. The Red Wedding was shocking, but even that has a ton of build up, with Robb making error after error, paying the ultimate price to learn that love cannot always overcome oath breaking and losing the loyalty of your followers and that inexperience can be a fatal flaw. Cersei blowing up the Sept of Baelor has an incredible amount of multi-season build-up, with Cersei’s desperation and paranoia over Margaery and the High Sparrow culminating in one final explosive act, pushing her beyond redemption and causing her to lose her last beloved child.
I can think of several more examples from the earlier seasons, but overall, the small, intimate scenes are vital to the show’s success because they lead to larger scenes – such as those big battles or dramatic climaxes – having a more significant impact. Huge events often have a series of little events building toward them at a balanced pace. And what season 8 (and 7, for that matter) lacks is those small moments. The result is rushed conclusions that bear less emotional weight, and payoff that feels both disappointing and underwhelming. Game of Thrones has always been so much more than dragons, occasionally gratuitous nudity, and grueling battles. It’s been about political sabotage, intricate human relationships, racism, the fallout of war, religion, and a multitude of other issues and subjects. But the final season feels superficial, falling short of she standards set by the GoT of seasons 1-4… even 1-6.
In season 8, Jon – a man who has believed his whole life that he is a motherless bastard – learns that he is a Targaryen. Not only that, but he is the true, legitimate heir to the Iron Throne. In the same moment, he discovers his lover is also his aunt. And yet, other than a few shocked looks and some brooding expressions… do viewers really know how Jon feels about this bombshell? Sure, he continues to swear himself to Daenerys (though he discontinues their romance), and denies wanting the throne… but we never get into his head or dig into his emotions over the ordeal. How does he feel about Ned really being his uncle? How does he feel knowing that his true father is Rhaegar Targaryen and his history is linked to Robert’s Rebellion overall? What does he think of Lyanna? How does he feel about being related to Maester Aemon, who he so admired at the Wall? Just how devastated is he to lose his relationship with Daenerys? He went from thinking he was a lowly bastard to discovering he is basically the center of intense conflict, and the product of two noble houses. We never get immersed in his emotions the same way we have in previous seasons, and so, his character development over the season feels stunted. It made him seem like a distant shadow of himself – a ghost, if you will.
Cersei did nothing this season but lament the lack of elephants, sleep with Euron, and stare out of windows… oh, and die. We never get tapped into her thoughts or emotions at all. Lena Headey does a brilliant job with what she was given, but there is so little reflection on Cersei’s character it comes across that the show didn’t know what to do with her, and her death is lackluster. Viewers expected her to die this season, but when the fateful moment comes, there is nothing surprising, nothing to make the viewer feel for her, nothing to signify or emphasize Cersei’s arc across the seasons. It’s like she only existed in season 8 to be taken down, and that is a poor tribute to Cersei’s character, who fans have loved to hate since season 1. She peaked in season 6, when she blew up the Sept.
Daenerys’s descent into madness, her almost fated Targaryen fall from grace into paranoia, took place in basically half an episode. Sure, there are hints of it in previous episodes and seasons – her initial instincts toward violence only being curbed by her advisers, her family words and legacy being “Fire and Blood,” the losses of her closest allies and friends and her steadfast belief in her destiny as a “liberator” pushing her to the brink. It’s not as though there is no build up at all. It makes total narrative sense for her character to take the turn she does in “The Bells,” and I personally love the idea of Daenerys becoming the conqueror she used to imagine eradicating. But because the pace over the last two seasons basically warped into hyper-drive, the change in her character feels far too abrupt, even if the seeds had already been planted long before. I suspected it might happen, and yet, seeing it unfurl in a blaze of death and ashes felt far too sudden. And honestly, Daenerys (and Emilia Clarke’s portrayal) deserved better, and the backlash is completely justified. The twist lacks the depth of previous seasons – it’s a detonation instead of a slow burn. Audiences – especially those who do not delve quite as deeply into the theories and book lore – felt like they had the rug ripped out from beneath them.
Even more egregious (to me, anyway) is Jaime Lannister’s return to his sister and lover, Cersei. Again, it’s not totally unbelievable that this would happen… but Jaime has had seven seasons of redemption, of trying to shed the “Kingslayer” moniker and prove himself as a man of honor. He finally turns on Cersei “for good” in the season seven finale, to fight for the living and go north. But when that fight is done, he sleeps with Brienne, then leaves her once he hears that Cersei is in danger… all in a single episode. And then, in the next episode, he meets his fate first at the sword of Euron of all people (which… I’m not even going to go there) then dies embracing Cersei as the ceiling caves in around them. So, what do viewers take from that? That seven seasons of building up one of the most intriguing characters, with an arc that explored the roots of his actions and his struggles with how people perceive him and how he hoped to leave the shadow of his tainted legacy behind, meant nothing? Again, narratively, it’s not outside of the realm of possibility that Jaime would do this – but seeing his turn in character take less than one episode is so sudden, so abrupt, it fell completely flat and carried no emotional weight whatsoever. Jaime was one of my favorite characters, and I didn’t even care when he died. Sure he died in the arms of the woman he loved, as he said he wanted to. He and Cersei left the world as they came into it; together. The seeds were planted for his decision, but were given no time to flourish, and the presentation of it was way too rushed, which made his fate feel anticlimactic.
I could go on. For example, there’s no way the other six kingdoms would be totally fine with the North remaining independent, and many of the other Highborn lords likely wouldn’t approve unanimously of Bran being king, either. Is there still a need for the Night’s Watch, if the White Walkers are gone and the freefolk are content beyond the remains of the Wall? How could Icy Viserion take down the Wall but not that rock that Jon was hiding behind? How could Drogon single-wingedly take out Cersei’s forces, including the Iron fleet and the Golden Company, when one episode before, he had to flee a portion of Euron’s ships to avoid being killed? What was the Night King really after? Did the Night King ever really matter beyond being a little speedbump if he and his forces were defeated in a single episode, and the rest of the Realm never knew the true danger they were in? Where the fuck is Meera? Who gets Dragonstone? Why does it matter if Jon goes to the Wall if Grey Worm and the remainder of Dany’s forces are leaving, anyway? You might think these are trivial questions, and maybe that’s true… but they are questions that the show would have answered in previous seasons. Instead, the final two seasons were a race to the finish with no time to dwell on emotion or development, when the show used to truly thrive when it did take time to dwell on those things.
Of course, I assume many of these endings and storylines will unfold differently in the books. There are more characters and situations involved in GRRM’s story than the show was able to portray without alienating the casual viewers, such as the fAegon arc, Victarion’s plot, and the schemes of Doran and the Sand Snakes. And if some of these points raised in the GoT finale remain in the intended book ending – such as Daenerys torching King’s Landing – I believe they will have much more development, and won’t feel unwarranted or unjustified. Readers will see character growth and motivation more clearly. I’m only sad that the version we got on the show lacked the intricacy of the previous seasons and the books, the little moments that made Game of Thrones so powerful and made the characters easier to connect with.
If fans out there loved the final season, then that’s great – and I hope that many folks did love the finale. There are parts of season 8 that I thought were amazing – Cleganebowl was excellent, and Drogon nudging at Daenerys after she was stabbed broke my heart. I will still watch the entire series over and over again, and there are so many elements that I have admired consistently over the years. I went to the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience back in 2017. I have a lot of merch, and will continue to wear my GoT shirts and such with pride. I don’t hate the show just because I found fault with the finale, and I don’t think those faults negate the incredible impact that GoT has had on the fantasy world. I just wish we had been given two full seasons to close it out – a little more time, and a little more depth, would have gone a long way.