Here we are at the end of it all. After 8 seasons, 73 episodes and almost 10 years, the end of HBO’s juggernaut fantasy series, Game Of Thrones, has finally arrived. With only 6 episodes to deliver a conclusion 8 seasons in the making, creators David Benioff and DB Weiss (and the entire production team) certainly had their work cut out for them. So did they stick the landing or go up in flames the same way Dany burned all those Dothraki Khals in season 6? The answer lies somewhere between the two extremes.
Be Warned! Full spoilers below!
Back in spring 2016 when Game Of Thrones was in the middle of its sixth season, reports started coming out the showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were considered doing 13 episodes split over two seasons to close out the show. That’s 7 fewer episodes than in two traditional seasons of the show. Much to HBO’s chagrin (who certainly would’ve given the two as many episodes as they wanted), this is indeed what came to pass with a 7-episode seventh season in 2017 and a 6-episode eighth season in 2019.
This truncated final two seasons meant Thrones’ pacing was about to kick into overdrive (a trend that had been developing over seasons 5 and 6). As Neil Miller from the Storm of Spoiler’s podcast put it: “#EfficiencyIsComing” and boy did it.
Once the show moved past George R.R. Martin’s published novels, it became something completely different. Gone where the days of long scenes are characters talking in rooms and slowly developing plots. In its place was a show focused on big moments and getting to them as quickly as possible. This final season (really these final two seasons) serve as a nice microcosm for that development and the ripple effects it had on the show’s storytelling as well as its reception by viewers.
To say the response to this final season was mixed would be an understatement. I knew the ending would be divisive but I wasn’t expecting to feel so apathetic about the whole thing. You want a show this huge to stick the landing but all I could do after it ended was give a shrug. So what happened? Well, it has less to do with where we ended and everything to do with how we got there.
For many years, Game of Thrones was slowly shifting to a show that prioritized big moments over anything else. As Vox’s Emily Vanderwerff put it, “Game of Thrones is more interested in payoffs than actual storytelling.”
It was all about introducing plot points and then paying them off as quickly as possible. There was no time for development or a middle act and the show suffered for it.
Everything I watched in season 8 supports Emily’s hypothesis. The show had a list of moments it needed to get to and it needed to do it as quickly as possible.
Take Dany’s turn from liberator to a full-on mad queen. Yes, it was seeded in over Dany’s entire arc but the actual break occurred in the span of a few episodes. We didn’t have any time to watch Dany and those around her react to her changing demeanor. It was a very effective move to strip Dany of her allies and slowly isolate her from the other characters. The problem is that that we don’t get to see her wrestle with losing everyone she cares about. Jorah dies and then Missandei the next episode and next thing you know she’s torching King’s Landing. Forgive me if I’m feeling some whiplash.
Dany is just one example of a character who’s arc suffered because of the sped-up storytelling. I could go on about any of the other characters whose arcs may have ended in a natural place but failed to reach that place in a way that justified the journey.
Don’t think about it too hard.
When I look at the events of the series finale, titled “The Iron Throne,” a lot of what took place feels right to me and leaves characters I love in some very satisfying places. Just don’t interrogate it for too long or it’ll fall apart.
Let’s take the example of Jon being ordered to take the black and re-join the Night’s Watch after killing Dany. Sure, it made sense as an end for Jon Snow’s story. He’s said over and over that he didn’t want the crown (“I dun wann it”) and has always been happier in the north. So he’ll go north of the wall and live with the wildings. Great. The only problem, is there even a Night’s Watch anymore? Why did Grey Worm just back down and let Jon go when he was the one controlling King’s Landing? Why didn’t Sansa, the new Queen in the North, just pardon him for his crime? Why not just have Jon willingly leave it all behind?
All of those questions are reasonable ones to ask of a narrative. Unfortunately, the answer for Game of Thrones is, “because this is where Jon’s story was going to end and we needed to get him back up north and him taking the black was how we decided to do that.”
So that’s the kind of show Game of Thrones became in its endgame. Fine, I accept that and probably enjoyed season 8 more because of that acceptance. But it’s no excuse for lazy and contrived storytelling decisions.
Every drama is going to have some contrivance to it up to an extent. That’s an acceptable part of storytelling but you want to leave your audience with as few of those “why didn’t they just do ______?” questions as possible. Season 8 of Game of Thrones left me with far too many.
But despite all those questions, I’m choosing to remain mixed-positive on this final season.
“It simply can’t get any bigger.”
In Game of Thrones: The Last Watch, the 2-hour documentary HBO aired about the filming of the final season, production designer Paula Fairfield said “It’s clear to everyone that Game of Thrones has to end. It simply can’t get any bigger.”
Big might be an understatement for this final season. Both episodes 3 and 5 ( titled “The Long Night” and “The Bells” respectively) featured the biggest and most elaborate battle sequences we’ve ever seen on TV. This season, as with every prior season, Thrones pushed what was possible on TV to new heights but that spectacle began to swallow up what once made the show great. There were multiple moments in season 8 that left my jaw on the floor just from the sheer scale of what I was watching.
This season was filled with incredible craftsmanship and stunning visuals but it almost came at the expense of satisfying character moments that make it all worth it.
Now Our Watch Has Ended.
So Game of Thrones is over and the best reaction the finale got out of me was “meh.” That’s better than “I hated it” but you want something more from the biggest show on TV. You want to be moved and satisfied, not frustrated and apathetic. I loved this show and I loved watching and discussing it with friends both online and off right up until the end. I just wish Weiss and Benioff had taken more time to bring these stories to their end because on paper, it’s all fine (aside from King Bran, that’s super dumb) but we got there too fast.
Perhaps two 10-episode final seasons would’ve alleviated the narrative whiplash? Who knows and frankly that’s a pointless exercise. Our job as viewers is to consume and evaluate the art that is presented to us as it is presented to us. It is NOT our job to spout off all the things we wish would’ve happened or to sign useless petitions asking HBO to reshoot the whole season. The show has already been made and your version of the story isn’t the one they were telling.
So was the final season of Game of Thrones great? No, not really, and especially not when you consider the high points of the previous seasons. But was it a complete disaster? I don’t think so. I think given the show it had become in its final 4 seasons, this was the best ending we could hope for. That doesn’t absolve the show from making lazy decisions but it goes down easier when you have that mindset.
This show was a landmark achievement in television. Nothing has ever been this big and this popular. We’ll see another show like it again, not sure when (although many studios are trying to get their Game of Thrones out ASAP, looking at you Amazon) but it’ll happen.
For now, I’m thankful for the journey this show gave to us and the community of fans it created. It’s an awesome thing to have something to talk about with just about everyone you know.
When it was great, Game of Thrones was so great, and I’ll always remember it for those moments. A so-so ending doesn’t invalidate all of that even if it doesn’t leave you wanting any more.
So long Game of Thrones. Now your watch has ended and what a watch it was.