This review contains spoilers
The end of an era
Well, that was . . . something. Game of Thrones, HBO’s landmark television series, has cut to black for the final time. Much has and will be said about the final season in the weeks, months, even years to come. Though, likely not as HBO and co-writring showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss anticipated.
Game of Thrones has long been cherished for its cinematography, score, pioneering television special effects, and the precarious nature of every episode. The show, as with author George R. R. Martin’s series of books upon which it’s based, was renowned for subverting the tropes often associated with fantasy/blockbuster entertainment. Thrones delighted in punishing its viewers and instilling a sense of dread, foreboding, and anxiety in millions of living rooms across the world a few weeks per year.
Of specific praise was its writing, as Benioff and Weiss’ Emmys can attest. Fans the world over were in agreement, the drama of Throne‘s fantasy world was a compelling escape to the drama of our own. Prophecy, political intrigue, and the macabre were interwoven and set to a low-burning flame, churning ominously throughout entire seasons before bursting forth in explosive bouts of violence and world-shaking consequences. Entire episodes were needed to re-establish boundaries, factions, alliances, and personal relationships – while others existed solely to wipe the board clean.
These observations apply more so to the books now than the show, seeing as Martin has yet to finish his renowned series and the seasons which surpassed their source material have stumbled their way to this: The most disappointing anti-climax of pop-television since Dexter.
All’s well that ends well
The final episode of the series, titled “The Iron Throne”, isn’t the worst of the eighth season, not at all. In fact, few of the episodes on their own merits should be considered of poor quality. From a technical perspective, especially, Thrones has never looked or sounded this good. The production values are elevated beyond that of most Hollywood films – that much is evident from this season’s opening moments, when the Unsullied army marches across a wide landscape into Winterfell, falling snow landing gently on bystanders’ faces. Obviously, the scale of the final season was enormous, but large-scale battles and digital-effects work mean little without the proper stakes and narrative developments to contextualize them.
That isn’t to say there wasn’t adequate foreshadowing of the events of the final few episodes. Daenarys’ fall from grace and into madness has long been understood as a possibility; if not by the validation of her often violent actions, then by her Targaryan blood. However, season six left us with the image of a liberator sailing westward with the intent to do good, and the entirety of season seven was spent convincing Daenarys and her armies to fight for the living, rather than succumb to petty squabbling over a pointy chair. There were exactly two episodes in season eight to appropriately convey Daenarys’ descent into madness. Two. For comparison, Daenarys spent more screen-time sitting in tents, pondering over how best to deal with slave-masters, than she did before massacring thousands of innocent lives in King’s Landing.
What followed the sacking of King’s Landing isn’t illogical. Jon Snow and Tyrion take matters into their own hands, kill Daenarys to avoid another tyrant ruler. Yadda-yadda-yadda, badda-boom badda-bing, Bran’s the new king. Tyrion is the hand yet again, Bronn wants new brothels, there’s an overt attempt to mirror the end of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, and Jon Snow finally gets to pet his dog.
Put another way: The events of the final season are not the problem. Under normal circumstances and with proper time allotted to developing and contextualizing these major revelations and plot points, the legions of fans calling for the final season to be remade probably wouldn’t have much to complain about. That’s the Achilles Heel of the end to this once great series: Baffling time management. An odd complaint to have considering the extended delay between seasons seven and eight.
Time is no ally
Following the sixth season, Benioff and Weiss announced that seasons seven and eight would wrap in a total of thirteen episodes. At that point in the narrative, there were two wars yet to be fought: One against the living, and one against the dead. Great lengths had been taken to ensure that the viewer understood the stakes of both (read: sixty episodes’ worth of storytelling.)
Season seven provided elevated, though occasionally lopsided, stakes and action, not to mention the most important reveal of the series up to that point – that of Jon Snow’s superior claim to the Iron Throne. It delivered, for the most part, but of its seven episodes, few felt as if they weren’t barreling toward the season finale in a whirlwind of broken ships and dragon-fire. Where the season excelled, however, was in inching every prior prophecy and character conflict up to its natural breaking point, then shying away in time for the credits to roll. This left audiences in baited anticipation for the final six episodes.
Jaime Lannister had seemingly betrayed Cersei; Jon and Daenarys were fully allied; the south finally understood the threat of the undead; the Night King had acquired a dragon and destroyed the wall; and the long-simmering tensions in Westeros seemed poised to finally boil over.
Which is where poor plot management and haphazard thematic assimilation come in and singlehandedly dismantle season eight from the inside out.
Season eight is a looker, as I’ve mentioned. That extended production schedule was certainly put to good use as far as dragon-effects and clashing armies were concerned, but something was missing throughout the entirety. That bloody beating heart of the show was absent.
Characters, freshly detached from any deliberate attempt at inter-episodic continuity, behave in accordance with a checklist of plot-points as opposed to influencing said plot-points themselves. The romance between Jon and Daenarys is especially flat and unfulfilled, as it’s given next to no adequate screen-time to develop. For comparison, Jon and Ygritte were allowed multiple seasons of interplay and concessions, the payoff of which was emotionally charged and satisfyingly tragic. The sound of Jon’s dagger plunging into Daenarys’ heart, ending her long saga of conquest and liberation, felt about as poignant as if he had jabbed a fork into a baked potato. Made so by the fact that two episodes prior, Daenarys and her army were essential allies in saving the land of the living from the dead. Three significant deaths and a few scowling close-ups do not a good villain make. Daenarys deserved to be a better villain. Were this a tragedy, as is suggested by the framing of her death, the seeds sown prior to this would have bloomed long ago.
The sin of the final season is that of wasted potential, not of bad ideas. Had we another few episodes, all of which dedicated to the massive ramifications of larger events, such as the battle against the dead, the sting of this final season would be dulled exponentially.
One needn’t look further for comparison than the Red Wedding and the Freys’ slaughter of the Starks. The geopolitical landscape of the entire series needed to be re-established. Under the time-lapse dictum set forth by seasons seven and eight, Winterfell would’ve been back in Stark hands within a handful of episodes, not thirty. The image of Stark Banners flying from the walls of Winterfell was a moment so long delayed, yet so well earned. Seasons of build up, of torment, and of perseverance informed that single shot of a sigil unfurling onto frost-bitten stone.
The problem then, is that during the six episodes of season eight, we are treated to visual spectacle the likes of which television has never seen. However, so very little of it managed any impact. “The Long Night” was every bit as bleak and dire as fans could have hoped for, but for one fatal error – it reduced the greatest threat known to the seven kingdoms into a one-off skirmish, ended in mere hours by a repurposed prophecy and a fancy knife trick.
The Great War, as it’s referred to in the show, was no more than a single siege on a single castle, with casualties landing in the significant-but-inconsequential range. What resulted was a massive showcase of special effects and nauseating tension, one that ended with the deaths of only one secondary character, and two tertiary characters – a far cry from the bloodletting viewers have come to expect from these titanic showdowns. The dead: A thread cutting through the entirety of the show, pulled at and revealed to be no more than an inconvenience. Which is to say nothing of the other plot elements left entirely out to dry by the show’s end, but that’s an article for another time.
For all its bombast and striking visuals, the core of the conflict was lost. The existential threat diminished overnight, those left living could resume their game of lordship and backstabbing. Characters known solely for their dedication to issues above their personage were suddenly cut down to serve as means to a structural end. Jon is told of his true lineage in no convincing manner, divulges this information to others for reasons born completely from a need to propel the narrative to a foregone conclusion, and then he suffers the consequences of these actions in no satisfying way.
There was a way to heighten the drama between Jon and Daenarys, tease out its elements and have it culminate in something other than a trite romance and heel-turn character moment. There was a way to pull Daenarys down from atop her wheel-crushing moral pedestal, but it would’ve taken far longer than the structure of the final season allowed. There was a way to maintain internal consistency, episode to episode, without phantom fleets appearing suddenly to “even the odds” (poor Rhaegal.)
There was a way to slowly build tension, to lay plans, and have it erupt like the Sept of Baelor. The show, once holding the longest of daggers under its sleeve, has been stripped to reveal the anemic framework of this by-the-numbers final season.
Rather than subvert the trappings of its genre, season eight of Thrones seemed content to revel in them. The lethargic earnestness on display in the closing hour of “The Iron Throne” ran counter to the nature of the show as we’ve come to understand it. Westeros and Essos were governed by a brutal pragmatism, the ends being power and the means being death. Daenarys succumbing to that fault isn’t a problem, but her doing so without much time for her (or the audience) to reach that point, or mull over the consequences, is.
There were no happy endings on the horizon, especially following “The Bells.” Daenarys uttered only a handful of lines to Jon Snow during their final interaction, each of which seemed tailor-made to comply with the lengthy speech Tyrion had given him moments earlier, where he begs Jon to end Daenarys’ life for the sake of the realm. How . . . convenient. For a show with a foundation of blood and bones, plot-conveniences certainly found an inopportune time to rear their heads, and they were a plague on this season.
Be it Euron emerging from the sea as Jaime happens to be strolling by, or Arya travelling all the way to King’s Landing to kill Cersei Lannister, only to change her mind and act as a ground-level vessel through which the audience can view the needlessly excessive destruction of King’s Landing. Tensions must mount before the showdown between Cersei and Daenarys, so Euron’s fleet arrives from nowhere to shoot down Rhaegal. An act of little importance, as the final battle was as one-sided a victory as we’d seen in the show.
What’s worse, due more to its context and presentation than its content, is the ending. A council of sorts is formed in King’s Landing of the remaining lords and ladies of Westeros. Played for a heart-warming (read: eye-rolling) chuckle is the notion that the next King or Queen ought be democratically elected. How bizarre, given the speechifying by one reformed misanthrope, Tyrion, to duly choose what is best for the realm and her people. Notably absent from this episode? The common people of Westeros. Absent from the season? Each of these lords save for the Starks, Sam, and (sort of) Yara. Representatives of the other kingdoms played no part in the events of the season as a whole – no role in fighting the dead or of sacking King’s Landing. Pity they think their judgement is requisite enough to elect a new king.
The idea of Bran on the throne is, actually, a solid one. Generations of knowledge would inform each of his decisions. It’s unfortunate, then, that the show does little to justify Bran’s existence as the Three-Eyed Raven until this point, and refuses to extrapolate on the benefits of such a ruler, other than Tyrion’s incessant monologing. The only scene in which Bran has assumed this role involves little dialogue and a hammy scene of wish-fulfillment in which all of our favorite characters were appointed to posts on the King’s Council.
Viewers are given a sermon, a list of morals for which to choose a king, one is chosen, and the realm lives happily ever after. It’s neat and clean and it even has a little Jon-pets-Ghost bow on top.
It is, at best, an uncharacteristically benign finale to one of the most audacious, gut-wrenching, and boundary-leaping shows ever made. Reminiscent more of the amber-hued farewells of The Lord of the Rings trilogy than of a work once emblazoned with the phrase, “All men must die.” A show that promised no easy solutions from its opening scene, ends near bloodlessly, and without pause for reflection. Not that it had the time to do so.
Viewers are well within their rights to exhume the corpse of this show and parade it around for as long as they’d like. Use it to justify abstinence from Benioff and Weiss’ Star Wars trilogy if you wish. Despite my criticisms of the eighth season, it’s no secret the impact Game of Thrones has had on television. What The Sopranos did for drama, Thrones did for sheer scale. Argue among yourselves as to whether either of them stuck their landing, but it goes without saying that with the passing of this entertainment titan, there will certainly be an arms-race of studio cash-burning trying to replace it.
Season eight, though, earns no seal of approval from me. As a technical marvel, it was well worth the ride. The issue with sticking the landing is an issue of legacy. Great works are defined by their endings. What is Blade Runner without “Tears in the rain?” What is Breaking Bad without “I did it for me?” Gatsby without bearing back ceaselessly into the past? These might not be fair comparisons, but they ought to be. At one point, Game of Thrones was in the conversation for the television Mount Rushmore. No longer. Poorly executed endings, protracted or otherwise, good ideas or none, tarnish the events preceding them.
Verdict: 2/5 – An incredible disappointment.
Solid directing, acting, score, and visual effects can’t overcome vapid, expeditious writing. Plot-contrivances and schematic characterizations overpower most dramatic potential. There is little of consequence to the proceedings, and it might well taint the stellar reputation this show has enjoyed for nearly a decade.
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Until next time.