OK, that was a ride, wasn’t it?
It’s been a couple of weeks since Game Of Thrones ended and I’m still not really over it. There have been arguments all across the Internets about whether the entire series is a failure or success based on the final season (or, in the case of some viewers, seasons 6-8 when the D&D team (I’m too fracking lazy to look up the full names of the Game Of Thrones showrunners) ran out of sweet sweet George R.R. Martin material to adapt).
In reviewing their concerns, they have laid their complaints squarely at the feet of the writing of D&D, and not anyone else involved with the production. There are at least a few brave souls online (mostly in the r/gameofthrones section of Reddit) that are attempting a straight-faced defense of Season 8 as a massive success in closing out one of the best series in TV history. And, there are a few people who are just online for the memes and fun (the r/freefolk section of Reddit).
For a couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to wrestle with how I feel about the series as a whole and Season 8 in particular. I’m in the (not surprising) position of wanting to argue a point but not to the degree that I have to put a massive amount of effort and research into the piece. (I’m just here to talk fantasy and writing, tbh, I’m not trying to put together the ultimate think-piece on GOT. If someone wants that, they can easily go to The Onion A.V. Club or i09 or Tor or wherever else they geek out about fantasy.)
What I am here to do is to talk about writing, which I personally agree with most of the commentators was the main problem with Season 8. However, if I’m going to label this series anything, the two words I would use to describe it would be: Flawed Masterpiece.
There’s so many aspects of this series that worked superbly throughout its entire run. The production design for GOT was never less than stellar. It always created a specific sense of place and culture, no matter where the action was. It did a great job of suggesting distinct cultures that were inspired by real-life culture but never exact copies of them – in fact, most of the time they would up being glorious remixes. The same goes for the costume, prop, and makeup departments.
The direction and cinematography of the series (notwithstanding Season 8 Episode 3’s darkness) were always top-notch. I loved how the action sequences were framed up and constructed from the beginning of the series to the end. Also, any stunt crew that can set records for longest combat action sequence on film and the most people on fire in a single shot are top of the line in my eyes.
Then there was the acting. Holy buckets, the acting was aces from the very first episode to the last. There were many different actors that had been there and done that (Sean Benn, Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage) and some veteran actors I’d never heard of (Iain Glenn, Charles Dance). Everyone proved why they were top of the line. There was great young talent (Kit Harrington, Emilia Clarke, Alfie Allen, Richard Madden) that the producers took a chance on and they carried the show on their backs. (I have no idea how this season would have gone if Emilia hadn’t leveled up on her acting skills and sold her entire arc.) Then there were the kids, Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner chief among them, who grew up on set and I know are going to be the next biggest actors to have both superb child and adult acting careers (Roddy McDowell, Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Kurt Russell, Jodie Foster, Drew Barrymore, and Ethan Hawke* among many others).
No, for me, if there were flaws in this series, it came down to the writing. And trust me, I know about flaws in writing. I make enough of them to be sure.
I don’t want to speculate about the reasons for the abbreviated seasons. People say D&D wanted to get it over with so they could start working on the Star Wars franchise, not that I’m probably going to watch anything regarding that except for maybe Episode IX. To be honest, I think the cast and crew could have easily been the ones saying they wanted to wrap it up after all that time on the job. The impression I got from the actor interviews was of a cast that both didn’t want to end things and yet felt it was getting to be time for the end.
So, let’s get into each of the episodes. I’ll spend more time on some than the others, but there’ll be something about them all and some side conversations as well.
- S8E1 – I thought this was an acceptable intro to the rest of the season. It effectively showed the tensions between the Dragon Queen and her army and her new northern allies. Plenty of good reunions all around (especially those involving Arya), and the scene at Last Hearth was spooky as hell.
The thing that bothered me on the rewatch – I got the sense that with the dragons flying over Winterfell for the first time, that Dany’s prideful reaction is intended to show how she seems to be overly enamored of showing her strength and just expecting people to follow her.
Unlike many people, I was not opposed to the Mad Queen scenario. I could absolutely see Dany feeling entitled to wear the crown of Westeros because it was her destiny to do that, it was her destiny to free all of the peoples of the world. But they needed to do better planning for that. Yeah, I saw the hints looking back at the different instances where she was a cold-blooded killer. But they needed to do better prep for that, man. At minimum, they needed to tell Emilia what was up long before the final season. She did everything she could to sell this last season, and I honestly think she grew several levels as an actor as a result of that, but it would have been so much better to let her in on the action when you know it’s happening, you know that it’s going to be part of GRRM’s endgame.
Just compare springing this on Emilia to what happened with Alan Rickman and the Harry Potter series. They let him in on what was happening from the beginning and it informed his performance throughout the entire series; it added so much weight to what eventually happened.
(OK, I had to take a break and watch the “Always” scene in the Deathly Hallows 2 film and start crying at the heaviness of all of it. I DON’T CARE. There, now.)
- S8E2: easily among the top five episodes in the series, bar none. Where do I even start? The home truths between Jaime and Bran, Jaime and Tyrion, Jaime and Brianne? Gendrya happening in a way that felt right? Everyone contemplating death? And the big reveal between Jon and Dany? Absolutely perfect.
- S8E3: OK, not too much to pick apart here. I can see the Dothraki making a suicidal charge into the Army of the Dead. It doesn’t make sense for the soldiers to be in front of the barricades keeping the wights out of Winterfell. Also, I have no idea why the catapults were stationed outside the castle rather than inside. (My father has no military experience whatsoever, but even he wondered what the hell was going on.) And honestly, it would have made sense for the NK to take down Rhaegal during this episode rather than having some random Ironborn scorpions do the job (see S8E4).
The rest of it, however, made sense, and I will always be a fan of Arya being the one that kills the Night King and passing into legend.
I admit Jon screaming at the dragon was pretty silly.
- S8E4: This is a contradiction of an episode. It is both possibly the worst episode of the series, and yet contains some of the best scenes.
Good parts: The opening sequence of the funeral for all of the dead. Man, Kit killed that speech at the beginning, didn’t he? The reactions of all of the actors was spot on. Also, the feast that night was the bomb, wasn’t it? I didn’t realize how much Northerners of all types loved drinking and cutting loose.
Bad Parts: Where do I fracking start?
- The whole reveal of Jon’s identity with his family. Yeah, I get that you didn’t want him to repeat his story a half dozen times, but don’t you think how his sisters and brother take this is important in establishing his relations with them going forward? At the bare minimum?
- The Arya brushoff was handled totally wrong. I think I should be able to correct that in my epilogue for the series, and I am going to consider that cannon from here on out; no one else is going to consider that otherwise.
- Rhaegal’s death from random scorpion fire (see S8E3).
- The Jaime/Brianne brushoff. I can perfectly see why Jaime would want to do this, and I’m not of the opinion that his decision “ruined his redemption arc.” I’ve heard enough stories about addicts to know that not every one of them redeems themselves. In the end, Jaime was a flawed man who could rise to the occasion when absolutely necessary but in the end fell into his old addiction (in his case, Cersei). Just a few additional lines of dialogue would have been sufficient to show the conflict Jaime had between his love for two different women.
- S8E5: I loved the action in this episode and it worked out far better than what I feared it was going to be. (Full disclosure: I was pouring over spoilers for this series from the beginning. Some people hate spoilers with the power of a thousand suns; I am all for them.) My complaints for this episode:
- Again, the problem with the Mad Queen situation. I am OK with what happened, but they needed to make it slightly clearer that they were going this route from the beginning of the series, at least more clear than they did before. (See the S8E1 complaints.) Despite everything, Clarke totally sold this transformation and I think it will help her grow as an actor.
- The Jaime/Euron meeting was trash. (Also, D&D really junked Euron’s character; I felt so bad for the actor playing him.) I think a fight could have taken place, but not the way it did. I could picture Jaime and Euron clashing after they both sneaked into the Red Keep trying to find Cersei.
- The rest of it, I didn’t have a problem with.
- S8E6: The ending worked better than I expected. Kit and Emilia really pulled off her death scene well. I thought the fates of the other characters made sense. I had no problem with Bran becoming king – again, this should have been developed more (along with his powers and what he was doing as the 3ER, as well). There were some hints about this in the series, but the idea wasn’t developed as much as it could have been.
(For those who are hoping that GRRM’s books will change the characters’ fates significantly, bury those thoughts in your backyard or garden. D&D are working from Martin’s outline and his desired ending. Hopefully he’ll develop those plots more thoroughly.)
- The things that didn’t work for me:
- I’m fine with Arya going exploring, but it doesn’t make sense for someone who believes in family so much to act like she’s never going to see her family again. Just adding something like “I’ll see you once I find out what’s west of Westeros” would have done the trick. Sansa agreeing to help her out (with a ship) would have filled in a couple of gaps.
- The ever changing size of the Unsullied and the Dothraki drove me up the fracking wall. Did they all get killed off or NOT? If this would have stayed consistent, it would have solved one of the biggest plot holes in the entire episode – why the Unsullied and Dothraki were so willing to go along with the decision of the Westerosi council.
- How it should have gone would be like this: The Battle of the Long Night reduces the effective force of Dany’s army severely. Let’s say there were less than 500 Unsullied left and maybe 1-2,000 Dothraki around. (Of course there might be more Dothraki left in Essos, but they wouldn’t come into play). If this force is surrounded by, say, a 30,000-50,000 person army of bannermen from throughout Westeros, the threat of destruction becomes very real. Now, the Dothraki might still want to take everyone on due to their blood oaths to their queen, but I can easily see Grey Worm stopping them because he wants to at least survive and keep his promise to protect Narth. This scenario would have made much more sense.
- I personally believe that Sansa, Tyrion, and all of the Westerosi lords were gaslighting GW by saying Jon was going to the Night’s Watch when he was really going to go beyond the wall. This need to be made clear because the way it was laid out in the episode was the height of stupidity.
Why does Westeros still need a NW when there’s no more Night King and the North are friends with the Freefolk? If it’s more of a general force to serve the whole realm (such as the French Foreign Legion), wouldn’t they have NW garrisons throughout Westeros (except for those sentenced to the NW; they could be sent to the Wall).
Once this was clear, all they would have to do would be to slip in another statement or two during Season 8 from Jon along the lines of “Oh, in many ways I wish I was north of the wall instead of here; things were so much simpler then.” Then, during Tyrion’s last conversation with Jon, after he discussed sending him to the Night’s Watch, he could have added, “…so that’s what’s going to happen to you as far as everyone’s concerned. But we’ve got another plan instead…”
- Not even giving the Dorne guy a name? Seriously?
- Not even a look between Arya and Gendry in that last episode when they were on the same platform?
- Queen Yara needed to remind Bran of the promise Dany had made to her that the Iron Islands would be independent. He could still do that and claim to be ruler of the Six Kingdoms. Come on, a promise is a promise.
In the end, I think the screenwriters/showrunners collided with some Writing Fiction 101 no-nos that could have been easily avoided. They include:
- If your plot only works because your characters are too stupid to figure out better plans or courses of action, then your story is going to run off the rails and destroy any suspension of belief that you might have. It’s OK for some characters to be that stupid, but it’s infuriating for an audience to see characters of reasonable intelligence or even high intelligence wind up doing dumb and dumber things. This is related to the next problem.
- You need to have characters take actions and demonstrate behaviors that are consistent with who they are. It takes time and craftsmanship to create those characters and their identities. You can’t have characters suddenly take actions that don’t make sense to them. That kills off the ability for readers or viewers to believe in the action, and it’s an insult to characters that they have invested themselves in.
So, that was my very basic, bare-bones assessment of Game Of Thrones. I have no idea whether I will watch any of the prequels/sequels that will come out, but I will always recommend the series to others, I will root for the GOT actors in all of their future endeavors, and I will always appreciate it for reaffirming my love for fantasy writing.
*Ethan Hawke is the greatest actor of my generation (Generation X). Try and prove me wrong (protip: you can’t).