Last warning: Spoilers inbound
The divisive final season of “Game of Thrones” is over, and while it was never likely to satisfy all the fans, the dissatisfaction came in unexpected ways. Rather than bringing our favorite character’s storylines to a bittersweet close in ways that felt like natural evolutions of their storylines, there was a lot of last second shifts that felt unearned. There were a lot of logical lapses that made the storytelling seem sloppy and inconsistent. Instead of staying within the established logic of the show, many of the twists felt contrary to what the show had been telling us even as late as earlier on in this very season.
The cinematography, production design, costume design, special effects and performances by the large ensemble cast were always far above average for a made for TV series. This season in particular, the artistry rivaled, or even surpassed, that of the biggest summer movie blockbusters. The lasting legacy that can never be taken away from Game of Thrones, regardless of how short the writing has fallen, is the shows consistently, increasingly excellent quality in terms of production value. And yet that fact just adds to the frustration for fans who had to watch as their favorite show rose so high and fell so far.
The only way I know how to express my dissatisfaction is by breaking down the characters and explaining why their storylines ended in ways that felt disappointing.
Arya (Maisie Williams) was a fan favorite from very early on. She always wanted to be a warrior, to fight alongside her dad and brothers. The catalyst of her journey was the moment she had to sit by and watch while her father was executed. From that point on her journey was one of revenge. She spent night after night reciting a list of names (conspicuously missing from that list was the Night King, but then again she never went north of the wall or encountered a Wight before the battle for Winterfell). She spent season after season learning to be tough and learning to fight from Syrio Forel (Miltos Yerolemou), The Hound (Rory McCann), and eventually the faceless men.
It was satisfying to see her use her mysterious faceless man skills to get vengeance kills on Meryn Trant (Ian Beattie) and Walder Frey (David Bradley), and all of House Frey for that matter. So you can’t argue that she didn’t put her skills to good use, but the ultimate kill, the biggest name on her list, the ultimate payoff to her storyline, was killing Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). That was the thing she’d been training her entire life to do. She even said multiple times (including to a group of Lannister soldiers) that she was going to King’s Landing to kill Cersei. She even told The Hound, while riding south, that she knew she probably wasn’t coming back.
But then during the moment of truth, because The Hound told her not to be like him, she gave up her life’s ultimate goal. If the showrunners had spent enough time on Arya’s journey questioning her quest for vengeance and exploring the complex morality of seeking that kind of vengeance in order to make some sort of commentary on the state of her soul, her turn in this moment may have felt satisfying. As it is, it felt like a sudden abandonment of the goal she’d spent the entire length of the show preparing for.
Jaime Lannister & Brienne of Tarth
Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) began the show in an incestuous relationship with his sister Cersei, and continually proved himself willing to do increasingly evil deeds if it meant protecting their relationship. But for much of the 8 seasons, Jaime went on perhaps the best redemption story ever put on television. Much of that is thanks to his time spent traveling with Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), a symbol of virtue and sword fighting prowess – as much the opposite of Cersei as you can find in the seven kingdoms.
Brienne was the catalyst for change in Jaime. One of the interesting comparisons is watching the twins, Jaime and Cersei, as they grow apart over the series. Their mirrored journeys and the way they respond marks their divergence. They both go through a period of captivity and torture that humbles them. Jaime comes out the other side a good man. Brienne was the first person to hear his true story and not judge him harshly for it. She believed in him, and her good nature and faith in humanity rubbed off on him.
Cersei on the other hand came out the other side a more vengeful ruler, more determined than ever to protect herself and her interests no matter the cost. And we see how far they’ve diverged in later seasons. At the end of season 6, Cersei crowns herself Queen of the Seven Kingdoms and Jaime looks on with a worried look that indicates he knows she is not the same Cersei he used to know. The rest of the series was spent slowly driving them apart, until Jaime left her (after she threatened to kill him if he didn’t stay) at the end of season 7.
In season 8, Jaime not only finds out that Cersei sent and assassin to kill him, but he also sleeps with Brienne after reconnecting with her and Knighting her. Jaime sleeping with Brienne seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of his past relationship. It’s Jaime finally breaking free from the bonds of his toxic relationship with Cersei. So it felt like whiplash when Jaime randomly woke up the next morning and decided he had to return to Cersei. It turned what was the best established romance in the series into a rebound. It cheapened everything that ever happened between Jaime and Brienne. It undid years of character development, and turned Jaime’s character arc into a circle that ended right back where it started – nothing learned, nothing gained.
Jon Snow/Aegon Targaryen and Daenerys Targaryen
The rushed romance between Jon (Kit Harington) and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) never felt as convincing as the script needed it to in order for the finale to work. Harington and Clarke lacked the necessary chemistry, and the rushed pace of the last two seasons required these two characters to fall in love well before it felt earned.
In retrospect their long winding journeys to meet each other like some star crossed lovers destined to meet each other and fall head over heels in love probably should have been the show’s longest running undercurrent. In order for the finale to really sell us on what the showrunners were trying to do, their relationship needed to be the greatest and most tragic love story ever told. However, since it never got it right to begin with, it’s hard to watch their final moments together and feel any emotion, of any kind, other than disappointment.
I believe that Daenerys turning mad Queen is the likely path George has been building to in the books, but the show never got her there. A few instances of burning evil lords, people who betrayed her, or enemy soldiers refusing to bend the knee is a far cry from outright targeting civilians (especially when an accidentally burnt child pushed her to lock her dragons away in an earlier season). Dany’s sudden turn didn’t feel like a natural progression of her character so much as it felt like the showrunners rushing to get her from point A to point B without putting in the necessary work to make it feel inevitable. By this logic – after seeing Ned behead the Night’s Watch deserter, Robb kill the Karstark who betrayed him, or Jon killing the Night’s Watch men who murdered him (including a child) – we shouldn’t have been surprised to see the Starks willingly murder thousands of innocent people right? Foreshadowing is not character development. There’s a huge difference.
Daenerys Targaryen’s long winded journey to gather a vast army of Dothraki and Unsullied warriors in the middle seasons of the show now feels undercut by the fact that she single handedly took Kings landing having destroyed Euron’s fleet and the Golden Company with little to no help from her foot soldiers. Then there’s the fact that the number of surviving Dothraki and Unsullied continues to change depending on the needs of the script at any given time.
However, it’s Jon who got the shaft more than any other character on the show. His storyline revolved around fighting the White Walkers. The Night King was the antagonist of his storyline and Jon was the protagonist. No one had encountered the undead or prepared to fight them more than Jon. He united the free folk and the northern houses along with Dany and her vast army with the goal of fighting the White Walkers.
And if there was any doubt that Jon and the Night King were destined to battle each other, the show relied on an age old principle in storytelling known as the rule of three – in which a storyline, a character arc, a joke, a set of characters, whatever the case may be, is more satisfying when playing out in a set of three. There is always 1 – the setup, 2 – the reminder, and 3 – the payoff.
For Jon and the Night King, the setup is their first encounter at Hardhome when Jon and company are overpowered by the Night King’s vast numbers. As Jon floats away on a boat, the Night King stares him down and raises his arms in what looks like the ultimate “come at me bro,” but also happens to raise more dead soldiers to join his undead army.
The reminder is their second encounter in season 7 “Beyond the Wall,” when Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) tells Jon all he has to do is kill the Night King, but yet again Jon and company are overpowered. They stare each other down again, but Jon is forced to flee.
And then the third encounter should have been the payoff. It should have been the fulfillment of the rule of three and the finale of Jon’s battle against the White Walkers. It’s the reason the Lord of Light brought Jon back from the dead, and the thing Jon spent so much time and energy dealing with. But for the sake of cheap surprise that flies in the face of proven methods of satisfying storytelling techniques, the showrunners sidelined Jon during the payoff of his storyline and gave the final fight (if you can call it that) with the Night King to a character with no ties whatsoever to the White Walker storyline. It felt cheap and unearned and dissatisfying. Surprise for the sake of surprise that ended in disappointment. Not because of who the act was given to, but because it sidelined Jon during his payoff robbing him of the catharsis that would have come by completing his fight.
The showrunners had to retcon the meaning of a couple of key lines of dialogue from previous seasons in order to make it appear as though they’d been foreshadowing Arya as the eventual killer – even if the those lines are vague enough to have applied to anything or nothing.
George RR Martin himself spoke against these kinds of surprises multiple times in interviews, saying that you can’t change a storyline for the sake of surprise just because people know, or suspect, the direction you’re going because it wouldn’t be satisfactory.
“I think some writers do that, and I think it’s a mistake. If you’ve planned your book that the butler did it, and then you read on the internet someone has figured out that the butler did it, and you suddenly change it midstream and it was the chambermaid who did it, then you screw up the whole book because you’ve got this foreshadowing early on and you’ve got these little clues you’ve planted, now they’re dead ends, and you have to introduce other clues and you’re retconning. It’s a mess.”
-George RR Martin
And then there’s the fact that despite Jon being chosen as King in the North after uniting a vast army of houses to fight the White Walkers, and despite having the rightful claim to the throne, and despite killing Daenerys (the woman he supposedly loved) in order to protect the people, not one single person even mentioned his true name or that maybe he was the right person, or the most qualified person for the crown at the end of the series. Instead he is sent back to the Night’s Watch, back where he started, back to take on the same bonds that he was killed and brought back to life to break free from.
For a show that spent much of it’s time talking about breaking the wheel, it turned a lot of character arcs and storylines into complete circles. Despite the journey they’ve gone on, Jaime and Jon ended up right back where they started. The biggest secret in the entire story, the secret Ned died protecting, the secret that held huge implications, the secret Varys died apparently telling no one about, the secret Sansa couldn’t avoid talking about, the secret that the showrunners used to convince George to let them make the series for HBO in the first place, turned out to be a nonstarter. Nothing came of it, because everyone forgot about it in the critical scene where it finally held the most relevance.
Jon’s storyline was clearly leading to a situation where, like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Jon’s aspirations to live a quiet life in the true north (what did Jon actually want?) would go unfulfilled because the demands of the family business kept him bound to a life serving the people who need him most. But after so much war and tyrannical leadership, Westeros deserved a good ruler, even if he was reluctant to take it. That in and of itself would have been the bittersweet ending Jon deserved.
But anything would have been better than the ultimate example of inconsistency in the show – Bran Stark.
Bran Stark/The Three Eyed Raven
The one who eventually won the game of thrones is the one who spent no time learning to lead. Worse yet, he literally stated multiple times that he couldn’t be lord of anything because he was no longer Bran Stark, he had become The Three Eyed Raven. Yet what The Three Eyed Raven is, or what his duty is, aside from being able to see all of history, remains somewhat mysterious. If anything it qualifies him best to serve on the King’s council as an adviser or as the one of the maesters of the citadel in Oldtown. He certainly doesn’t have the most interesting story, as Tyrion suggests. He was even absent for an entire season.
Moreover, naming him King and having him act like he knew it was coming opens the door for a lot of sinister interpretations of his character. If he could see the future and knew this was coming, he allowed a lot of people to die and used his influence to corrupt people in order to pave the way for himself to become king. The whole time Bran was playing the game of thrones. Everything he said about not wanting it, not wanting anything, not being Bran Stark anymore, not being able to be lord of anything, it was all lies? And yet we’re supposed to feel hopeful about him being king? Westeros is now a police state run by a king who sees all.
Most viewers liked Sansa as a competent leader, but as a Queen? Didn’t the show just spend its final season preaching about the corrupting force of the seat of power, especially for those who seek it? What message is it trying to send by then allowing Sansa to create her own seat of power and name herself a Queen? And why would no one else at the council meeting have played the game of thrones and thrown their own hat into the ring for succession from the seven kingdoms if Sansa had done so with no argument to be had?
With a northern lord sitting on the throne of the seven kingdoms would the other northern lords not have fallen in line? It didn’t make sense within the logic of the show to name a Stark the king but also say the northern houses wouldn’t submit to a southern ruler.
Worse yet, sending Jon north, Arya west, and having Sansa and Bran become rulers of separate kingdoms is counter to Ned Stark’s words of wisdom that ran as an undercurrent throughout the show. “The lone wolf dies, but that pack survives.” We’ve learned over the course of the show that the Stark children are stronger together, but the finale sends them all in opposite directions.
If Jon had been named King, Sansa named Warden of the North, Tyrion named Hand of the King, Bran named Master of Whisperers, Arya named Master of War, Sam the Maester, and Davos Master of Ships – that’s an arrangement I could get behind. The pack would survive and likely make Westeros a better place than it had been.
There are other problems to discuss about other characters (Bronn comes to mind – Master of Coin really? Finally gets his castle then leaves it immediately to serve in King’s Landing?), but all of those complaints sound a bit more nitpicky than the ones regarding these crucial characters.
The final season fell apart because the showrunners didn’t give themselves enough time to properly set up all the twists and turns and as a result, they ended up feeling very dissatisfying. HBO and George RR Martin wanted 10 seasons, with 10 episodes each, but showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were stubbornly determined to finish the series in 70 episodes rather than 100. They compromised and gave us 73 episodes, but it was clearly not enough. Their rush to finish has lead to fan speculation that they mailed in the final season so they could move on to working on the trilogy of Star Wars movies Disney contracted them for.
They had the unenviable task of trying to write the ending to a wildly popular story started by one of the premiere names in fantasy writing. On the one hand, if they stuck to George’s intended ending and still the fans were unsatisfied, a portion of the blame shifts over to George. But they’ll forever hold the blame for rushing to the finish line and refusing offers for more time.
Game of Thrones now joins the likes of “Lost,” “Dexter” and “How I Met Your Mother” in the conversation for worst ending to a once highly rated series.
Let me know what you liked or didn’t like in the comments!