How The Final Season Turned Game of Thrones Upside Down
A big hint to Game of Thrones’ shift in storytelling in its final season could be found in the revamped opening credits. The opening credits, which had up until that point glided over a painterly Westeros and its numerous kingdoms, now plunged deeply into just two locations: Winterfell and Kings Landing. The message was clear. The world outside of these locations does not matter anymore.
Yes, it’s true that the surviving characters we had grown to love over the years were either holed up in Winterfell and Kings Landing, desperately navigating beautifully filmed and well-staged carnage. Really, this season often proved to be consistently viscerally thrilling television.
But Game of Thrones didn’t become the biggest television show ever by having fan-favourite characters doing action hero stuff. It was through careful attention to detail that Game of Thrones captivated us all in its earlier seasons.
For instance, Robb Stark’s war against the Lannister family as revenge for executing his father Ned Stark. There was a definite sense that his cause, no doubt a righteous enough one, had devastated much of the countryside and lead to the deaths and rapes of the smallfolk who were caught in the middle. The plot didn’t skimp on these details! Because a significant texture of this story was that when the powerful seek their justice, it’s the little people who will pay the price. The world outside of the Stark’s (valid) anger was real – and it suffered tremendously because of it. This is as far away from cut and dry epic fantasy heroics as it gets.
It was the same with other characters too, as their choices cascaded in ways that were impactful, often tragic. The seasons’ structure allowed for this kind of scope. 8 episodes would build up to either the spectacular battle or tragic event. The 9th episode would detail the spectacular battle or tragic event. The tenth episode would function as an epilogue and a prologue for the next season.
So with this final season tasked with ending major story threads, like the White Walkers and the last war for the Iron Throne, and giving every other character at least a proper send-off, all within a mere six episodes…well…the details were skirted or sacrificed completely in order to get to the next big plot point or facilitate the next action set-piece.
This structure nullified some dramatic heft. Such is the case with the White Walkers, a terrifying existential threat that made the constant vying for power seem insignificant. They were neatly disposed of within a single episode. Then it was immediately onto the next big bad, Queen Cersei Lannister, who had in the interim somehow attained the ability to emotionally crush her enemy, Daenerys, in the span of what seemed like a day.
She had lost these mysterious powers, and indeed her characteristic cunning by the very next episode, because it was time to leap to the next plot point: Daenerys burning down Kings Landing.
This infamous episode, “The Bells”, was quite pointed in showing that Dany was murdering civilians fleeing in terror, that they weren’t collateral damage. The performances are magnificent. Emilia Clarke delivers some of the finest work she’s ever put forth and the fleeing extras are convincing. The atmosphere of apocalyptic doom is thick and smoky, so it feels churlish to say it’s ineffective as a tour through hell, but…it is. I just can’t get the question out of my mind: “How the fuck did we get from there to here? How can I buy this turn to pure evil?” There’s vague allusions to Targaryen madness, but Daenerys has been consistently presented as one of the saner, more compassionate characters, so this doesn’t hold water. She had lost her advisors and friends in quick succession, sure, but they were never needed to curb unreasonably violent impulses. So again, I don’t know how we got here! The only overwhelming sense I get is that the writers needed this to happen so the show could wrap up quickly while also being as shocking as possible.
So before the fires from her genocide are even extinguished, we have to sprint to the next plot point: Jon Snow knifing Dany in the heart. She is so out-of-character remorseless about her rampage that it’s just about impossible to care when her lover kills her. The only explanation Dany provides for her rampage is “Cersei used their innocence against me”, but given that she “woke the dragon” after the city had already surrendered, we’re left to wonder whether the writers were even paying attention as far back as an episode prior, or whether Dany is just bug-fuck nuts delusional now for no reason.
How do the survivors now go about restoring the capital after it got levelled? Good people are in charge now, so I guess don’t think about it too much – fuck the details, roll the credits!
We’re not being elegantly guided throughout the final act of this epic story so much as roughly shoved along. The most common criticism of season 8 of Game of Thrones is that it feels rushed. It’s the most common criticism because it’s true. The truly tragic choice was one made by showrunners DB Weiss and David Benioff to make the final season both as eventful as possible and as truncated as possible.
Despite my complaints, I’m torn on the final season of Game of Thrones. I honestly liked where most of the characters ended up. Yes, even Jamie Lannister. Aside from an appallingly out-of-character single line (“to be honest I never really cared for them, innocent or otherwise”), his honour and his self-destructive love proved equally strong; honour compelled him North and destructive love dragged him South. Not what you’d call a straightforward redemptive journey, but a fitting tribute to his complexity all the same. As the creator himself George RR Martin would often quote from William Faulkner: “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.”
And I have no issue with Daenerys’ end, theoretically. But if the connective tissue was fleshed out, it could’ve ended up being one of the great tragic storylines of our time. Instead it’s just this terribly compromised version of a poetic idea; the woman who sought to break the wheel ends up as the most terrible spoke on that wheel. There’s something good there, if you look hard enough.
Finally, Bran becoming King has an appealing fairy tale cadence to it, as if Westeros itself were finally taking charge of its destiny, but this goes against Game of Thrones’ more realist sensibilities; simply put, Bran seems to not know where he is most of the time and would consequently be a disastrous ruler.
Game of Thrones has always been about the journey. Game of Thrones season 8 is all about the destination. If the details had to be sacrificed in order to get to a destination, then that’s what happened. It’s such a fundamental shift of priorities that, for all of season 8’s technical virtues and the sound resolution of a few story beats, it still can’t help but feel like a betrayal of the show’s ethos