Further thoughts on Game of Thrones

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones, including Season 8 and the series finale.

This article is somewhat unusual for me in that it’s a direct follow-up to a piece I wrote a few days ago. In that article I looked at some of the reasons why Game of Thrones has basically wiped itself off our collective cultural map and why no one seems at all interested in rewatching it in 2020, despite it having once been considered as one of the best television series of all time. All of this pertains to the show’s eighth season, and that’s the topic I’ll be picking up again today, as I felt that some points in my original article didn’t go deep enough into some of the other issues fans have with the season. Ironically, I left some of those points underexplained!

I really do recommend reading the other article before this one, and you can do so by following this link: Where did Game of Thrones go?

Last time, I talked at length about where the season failed hardest for me personally, and that’s the Night King being so utterly wasted as a villain. Before we look at some of the other points, I want to go into a little more detail about this storyline. The Night King ended up being probably the most egregious anticlimax I’ve ever seen on screen. I can’t remember another film or television series that has built up a story for so long only to toss it aside so casually. The war against the Night King had been building up over seven seasons, with information trickling back to the main characters about goings-on north of the Wall for literally years. I mentioned last time that Game of Thrones’ opening scene in its premiere episode way back in 2011 set up this story – a clear statement of intent that this was what the show was about.

There’s actually a great message in a story like the Night King’s. It says that the politicking, palace intrigue, and even the wars between competing kings and queens is fundamentally irrelevant when a threat far greater than any of them is coming. The Night King is, in many ways, a force of nature. His strong association with the season of winter is tied to this, and the coming unstoppable force is an analogy for some of the problems facing our world – most notably climate change. What the story of the Night King should have said is that working together to face a powerful threat is something we will have to learn how to accomplish, because if we don’t we’ll all perish together.

The Night King’s death scene wasn’t even well-lit or well-framed.

Characters would have to make sacrifices in such a situation. Not only laying down their lives, as we saw only a couple of characters really do against the Night King, but losing their dreams and ambitions too. Doing the right thing and suffering terrible consequences has been a theme of Game of Thrones since its first season, yet for many of the characters who stood against the Night King, they don’t seem to suffer any consequences at all. If they do, it isn’t acknowledged on screen.

Many people far wittier than I have drawn comical analogies for how Game of Thrones handled the war against the Night King. “It’s as if Voldemort was defeated in Book 5 and Harry Potter spent his final two years at school getting picked on or having a nasty teacher!” proclaimed someone. “It’s like the One Ring getting thrown into Mount Doom midway through The Two Towers only for Frodo and the Fellowship to return to the Shire and argue with his aunt.” suggested another. “It’s as if Darth Vader and the Emperor both died in The Empire Strikes Back and Luke Skywalker spent the final film fighting Boba Fett or Jabba the Hutt!” was another offering. What do all of these examples have in common? They would have been massive anticlimaxes, with the primary source of conflict resolved too soon.

The war against Cersei – which ended up being little more than a rout – was just fluff. And it felt that way for a reason: there were no stakes. The Night King – underdeveloped though he was, and with his motivation not made clear – was an existential threat not only to our heroes, but the very world they inhabited. His victory would have plunged Westeros and Essos into a “Long Night” – an era of darkness and cold where any survivors who hadn’t been turned into wights would surely die of starvation. Now that’s an enemy we can all agree is worth defeating.

Contrast that to the consequences of Cersei being victorious. Some main characters would probably be executed if they survived the battle. Others – like Bran or Sam, perhaps – may have been allowed to live under certain conditions, such as being sent to the Wall. The smallfolk (i.e. the peasants of Westeros) would live their lives as they always had. The ruler would be a jerk, but she wouldn’t exterminate all life on the planet. And when she died – Cersei is no spring chicken after all – someone else would take over and would probably be a better ruler. In short, the stakes are not just lower, they’re practically nonexistent in comparison.

There’s a theme present in the works of George R. R. Martin, and of many other writers and creators in the 21st Century: subverting expectations. This is one part of postmodernism in literature: taking older, established ways of writing and storytelling and trying to shake them up or do something different. Different authors and creators do this in different ways: the novel Cold Mountain, for instance, didn’t use speech marks to indicate dialogue, which was a truly annoying gimmick.

George R. R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Martin seems to consider himself somewhat of an anti-Tolkein, despite his works being heavily influenced by Tolkein’s. And that is partly true, as A Song of Ice and Fire takes a different approach to its fantasy setting. Both Martin’s and Tolkein’s works are epic fantasy, but Martin takes a far more edgy approach to his subject matter. We could talk at length about how some of Martin’s creative decisions verge on the obscene, which is why key characters had to be “aged up” when the story was adapted for television.

In the case of the Night King and the Army of the Dead, the expectation of the show’s fans was that somehow, this would be the most important story of the final season. This conflict would be the season’s lynchpin. Cersei would be part of it somehow, and everything would tie together. That expectation had been deliberately constructed by the show’s producers and marketing team, and when it turned out not to be true, far from being a clever subversion it ended up as an awful anticlimax.

Some have tried to argue that the characters – principally Cersei – are “just being realistic”, and that the show is depicting events that have genuine historical analogy, like the breaking of promises and the betrayal of allies.

What Martin and other storytellers who try to use this postmodern approach to messing with audience expectations often miss is that there’s a reason why stories have been written and structured a particular way: they’re entertaining. Nobody is watching Game of Thrones because of how realistic it is – it’s fantasy and escapism. The realistic or quasi-realistic depiction of certain events is part of that, and entertainment in general has seen a recent trend toward realistic visuals, among other things. But if the intention was to make Game of Thrones feel like “real history”, that was a stupid idea from the start. If I wanted to learn about the Wars of the Roses or the history of the kings and queens of France – both sources of inspiration for A Song of Ice and Fire – I’d go to the non-fiction section of the library or watch a documentary.

If there’s a choice between being “realistic” and being entertaining, for the love of god if you’re making a dramatic television show choose to be entertaining! Don’t mess with the way stories have been told for practically all of human history because you think it’ll be “cool” or “subversive”. There’s a reason why people want to see battles of Good versus Evil, and why people want to see the biggest, most intimidating villain be defeated at the story’s climax, not halfway through: those things are more entertaining. The purpose of Game of Thrones was to be entertaining, not to be a let-down.

There is plenty of room in the world of entertainment for stories that aren’t about fundamental battles between Good and Evil. But if Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire wanted to be that kind of story, with a sole focus on human villains, palace intrigue, war, and politics, then why have magic at all? Why go to all the trouble of introducing the Night King and building him up as an existential threat? If the show wanted Cersei and Daenerys to be the villains, to show how power corrupts or that a belief in one’s own righteousness can lead to heinous crimes, just set up that story and skip the evil all-destroying Dark Lord. If George R. R. Martin didn’t want to write a story where the good guys face off against an evil villain, then why’d he write his books that way and let the show go down that route?

If the show wanted to be all about the wars, politicking, and human villains, why bother creating the Night King at all?

Perhaps part of the problem is that the show and books have become, over the preceding seasons, distinct from one another. The Night King is not actually a book character – at least not as of the end of the most recent novel, A Dance With Dragons. He’s a show creation, intended to give the leaderless Others (the novels’ name for the White Walkers) a figurehead. There are many other points of divergence, but perhaps this is the biggest one, and one which could explain why the Night King storyline fell so flat: it wasn’t Martin’s creation.

Martin, Benioff, and Weiss may look at the works of authors like Tolkein with derision, considering the premise of good-versus-evil a played-out cliche. And it’s true that sometimes, that basic premise can feel overdone. But there’s a reason why audiences respond to the kinds of stories that we don’t see in real life – they’re entertaining and engrossing. Seeing a bunch of flawed humans scrabbling around to decide who’s the temporary king of a broken kingdom isn’t as epic and it isn’t as fun. Fantasy in particular is meant to be escapism; there’s a place for realism in entertainment provided it stays on the right side of the line. But Game of Thrones got it fundamentally wrong if the producers and writers believed that fans were more interested in seeing Mad Queen versus Mad Queen instead of the Great War between the living and the dead play out in more detail.

In Season 5 and Season 7 especially, we start to see the Night King as a foil for Jon Snow – which explains why a lot of people were so upset that the Night King and Jon never faced off against one another at the Battle of Winterfell. Again, the question is why? Why set up that rivalry only to drop it at the moment it should have reached its zenith? If the intention always was for Arya to land the killing blow – as showrunners Benioff and Weiss have indicated – why set up a Jon Snow-versus-Night King expectation? This comes back to what I said about good storytelling and how stories have been structured and written historically: there’s a reason why a hero-versus-villain fight feels right and feels so epic and spectacular. Messing with these formulae too much can lead to the whole story just disintegrating, and that’s what we see with Game of Thrones.

Personally speaking, I was okay with Arya landing the killing blow. I felt it was a good use of her assassin training, and it meant that we got to see her use her skills (which otherwise would have felt like a wasted arc in previous seasons) but without her killing Cersei. However, it would definitely have been nice to see Jon and the Night King duelling at the Battle of Winterfell before she struck. For the reasons outlined above, I understand why many people didn’t like it and felt that it was another bolt from the blue in a season that was frankly overrun by these twists.

I wrote last time that Game of Thrones was a series that definitely became aware of its own reputation as the seasons went on. The showrunners and writers evidently felt a peculiar pressure to keep up the unexpectedness, but without the books to rely on to provide twists, they had to make up their own. That’s how we ended up with Littlefinger’s storyline at Winterfell in Season 7, it’s partially why Tommen committed suicide at the end of Season 6, and it’s why Jon had to lead a mission north of the Wall in Season 7. With no source material to work from, and a barebones outline of where the characters needed to end up, Benioff and Weiss did their best to get them there, but they wanted to keep up the show’s reputation for being unreliable and throwing shocks and twists at the audience. With all due respect, though, what they managed to come up with was a poor imitation of Martin’s work. Benioff and Weiss were amazing at adapting already-complete stories for the small screen. But they were poor when it came to making their own decisions about where the story should go and how it should unfold. That may be why they were dropped by Lucasfilm having been offered the opportunity to work on Star Wars, and it’s certainly why Netflix, which has hired the duo, should be very careful about how much free rein it gives them to create a new story.

David Benioff and D. B. Weiss adapted Game of Thrones for television and served as showrunners for the duration of the series.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Of all the plot threads that Game of Thrones dropped without a real conclusion, the Night King’s is the worst. Secondary storylines, like those involving Dorne or Essos, might be annoying to fans and noticeable, but the Night King was the show’s overarching villain and the driving force for much of the story of the series. His death in his first real battle and his first appearance of the season, and then the surviving characters taking almost no time to deal with what happened as they rushed on to the next story point, was where the season – and arguably the main storyline of the whole show – came undone. We needed to get two things from the Night King, as I wrote last time: a genuine motivation, complete with tangible implications in the event of him winning, and to see him actually win a fight. We got neither, and the show simply couldn’t recover from that truly awful anticlimax.

I didn’t intend to spend so long on the Night King again, but apparently there was a lot more to say from my last article on this topic.

Having spoken to friends who are Game of Thrones fans, and having participated in the online conversation surrounding the show last year, one thing that’s clear to me is that there’s no agreement on what Season 8 did worst. Some are upset by the Night King, as I am, others are upset by Daenerys’ rush to madness. Some feel Jaime’s character regression was the worst mistake, others still feel that the decision to crown Bran was where the season truly went off the rails. But there is agreement – almost universally so – that Season 8 was a failure. Practically everyone I’ve spoken to made the point that six episodes were simply not enough to tell the final part of this story, and the truncated season ruined one or more major storylines as a result. It’s hard to disagree with that consensus.

There are several points in Season 8 which received a lot of criticism that I personally felt were okay. I mentioned Arya landing the killing strike on the Night King as one of those points. The Night King needed way more screen time and explanation, as we’ve already covered, but fundamentally the idea that she could use the skills she learned in Essos to take him down wasn’t particularly an issue for me – at least not when compared to the overall failure of that storyline.

Another character whose arc was criticised was Jaime Lannister. After several seasons of growth and change, many fans felt that his decision to ditch Brienne and return to King’s Landing to be with Cersei was out of character, a regression, and destroyed his arc. Game of Thrones has never shied away from presenting its characters as flawed, and in my opinion, what Jaime’s decision was trying to say is that despite everything he’d been through, the love he feels for Cersei, even as he recognises how twisted and evil she can be, is stronger than anything else. It wanted to say that people will do inexplicable and nasty things for love, and that sometimes there’s no way to overcome that. It also wanted to say that some people can appear to change but fundamentally haven’t or can’t. Is that depressing? Sure it is – but anyone who’s been betrayed, lied to, or cheated on by a partner can recognise something in Jaime’s Season 8 arc. If you’ve ever felt that sense of regret that comes from having been warned about someone or missing the “red flags” in a relationship, I think you should be able to relate to how Brienne feels in the moment Jaime leaves.

The character turn was rushed, of course, as was practically everything in Season 8. And I don’t disagree that his decision seemed to come from nowhere. It’s also hard to argue with the idea, given that he did nothing of consequence after leaving Winterfell, that he could have been killed in the battle against the Night King – his death would have gone some way to making that fight feel less pathetic. This ties into what I was saying earlier about the postmodern approach to storytelling, and how Game of Thrones has wanted to throw away established conventions. Seeing Jaime undo several seasons’ worth of changes to his character is fundamentally unsatisfying to a large part of the audience, regardless of any message that kind of story may contain. What was also deeply unsatisfying to many fans was seeing Cersei reunited with her lover and soulmate before her death.

When a villain like Cersei is presented in such a mean, nasty way, we as the audience want to see her get her comeuppance. For some villains it isn’t enough that they’re defeated or even killed, there’s a part of us that wants to see them suffer. Cersei being reunited with Jaime gives her great comfort in the moments before her death. She doesn’t die alone, she dies in the arms of the man she’s always loved. And as with the point above, I can certainly appreciate why fans feel that was less of a satisfying end for a character we’ve all been encouraged to loathe for eight seasons.

Game of Thrones ended up with Cersei as the show’s final villain in what was a major anticlimax.

The sequence that I termed the “Electoral College” last time, in the series finale, is another point that comes in for criticism. I said last time that the decision to anoint Bran as king was a problem for some people, as the way he might govern and the people he appoints to his ruling council basically represent a continuation of the previous system of government. The Electoral College may work for Bran and Bran’s successor (as he is unable to have children and his apathetic personality means he’s unlikely to have a preference for who succeeds him on the throne), but it may not work very well in the long run. It’s essentially rule by an aristocratic few, with all of the corruption, unfairness, and lack of freedom such a system propagates.

But looking at the sequence itself, which is something I rather glossed over last time, there are clearly some issues. And yes, some of these are closer to nitpicks than major errors, but taken as a whole there’s a reason why the sequence didn’t work for a lot of fans.

Firstly, the reason the Electoral College was assembled in the first place is that there was no clear candidate to rule. While it should certainly be seen as an encouraging step that the surviving lords and ladies got together instead of raising their armies and claiming the throne for themselves, several candidates present at the meeting had claims to the throne, as did at least one person not present – Jon Snow. The reveal of Jon’s heritage as a Targaryen and not a bastard gave him the strongest claim to power, stronger even than Daenerys’. Several of the great houses of Westeros had been very keen in earlier seasons on a Targaryen restoration, and while it’s true that the principal figures involved in that are mostly dead by this point, they have heirs and representatives at the meeting who arguably should be in favour of restoring the Targaryen line. With Daenerys dead, the only Targaryen who remains is Jon. Even if he wasn’t to end up on the throne, the fact that he wasn’t even considered by anyone raised many eyebrows. I don’t think it makes the revelation of his true lineage somehow a waste, because Game of Thrones has always been a series where characters’ supposed destinies don’t pan out. But some fans feel that way, perhaps because they’d been on “Team Jon”, or perhaps because he seemed like the best candidate to them.

But there were other candidates besides Jon. The line of the Baratheon family – which was related to the Targaryens in the past, allowing Robert Baratheon to claim the throne in the first place – leads to Gendry, who has been recently legitimised and given dominion over one of Westeros’ realms. If Jon is not an option, Gendry has a strong claim as Robert Baratheon’s heir and as an admittedly distant relative of the Targaryen family through Robert. Edmure Tully nominates himself before being shot down by Sansa in what some fans derided as a “girl power” moment. But why not Edmure? No one else seems to want the job, and as a nobleman he’s as valid a candidate as anyone present.

The North seems overrepresented at the Electoral College. All three surviving Stark children – Sansa, Bran, and Arya – are present, as is Brienne, who is sworn to Sansa’s service, and Sam, who seems to be the sole representative of the Night’s Watch. Of thirteen people present, four or five represent one of the seven kingdoms – which intends to fully and formally secede. Several of the other lords either don’t speak or barely speak, leaving their realms without a voice in proceedings.

The Stark family survivors at the “Electoral College”.

As I mentioned last time, both Dorne and the Iron Islands had been on the verge of secession in earlier seasons. Dorne in particular was livid when the Targaryens were deposed, and had been working constantly to bring about a Targaryen restoration. And the Iron Islands, now seemingly under Yara’s control, had been promised independence by Daenerys. As above, even if the ultimate outcome was to be the Iron Islands’ continued presence in the realm, for their claim to not even be mentioned once feels like an oversight at best. We had never met the new Prince of Dorne before this sequence, so perhaps having this new character press for his home’s independence might have felt somewhat tacked-on, but Yara is an established character, someone who has fought hard ever since we met her for the Iron Islands, so for her not to speak up at all is understandably something fans noticed.

When Tyrion arrives at the Electoral College he’s a prisoner of the Unsullied. Grey Worm hates him for his betrayal of Daenerys, and at the beginning he’s told he isn’t allowed to speak. Yet within moments, Tyrion is dominating the proceedings. He gives a speech and it’s his nomination of Bran than sways everyone to anoint him as the new king. Many fans feel that Tyrion’s status as a prisoner meant that he shouldn’t have been allowed to play such an important role in the Electoral College, and it’s worth acknowledging that.

In the aftermath of the finale, a reviewer wrote that the Electoral College alone could have been a whole episode or a whole season, instead of simply a twelve-minute sequence toward the end of the finale. In a show that has always done politicking well, I can agree with that sentiment. There was a lot to discuss, and while the ending could have remained the same, we could have certainly spent more than twelve minutes getting there.

Continuing our theme of looking at nitpicks, two of Season 8’s battles received a lot of criticism for the perceived lack of logic in their tactics and the way those battles unfolded. Firstly we have the Battle of Winterfell, where points of criticism included the Dothraki cavalry charge, the placement of infantry compared to artillery, and most prominently the decision to place many soldiers outside the walls of the castle. Castles are, of course, designed to be defensible positions which armies and civilians can retreat to. Winterfell in particular is a large complex, and we saw some of the battle preparations include bringing food and supplies inside the walls – something that would be done to withstand a prolonged siege. When facing an overwhelmingly powerful army, like the Army of the Dead, many fans and armchair generals felt that leaving forces outside the walls to face the attackers head-on was a dumb decision. And I can see that point of view. Certainly having the Dothraki charge right into the first wave of the wights was silly; having them somewhere to the south in reserve, where they might be able to join the battle later in a flanking manoeuvre or even hit the Army of the Dead from the rear would have been a better use of cavalry in this situation. This was a mistake the Golden Company repeated at King’s Landing, where a portion of their forces inexplicably stand outside the city walls too.

The second criticism of the eighth season’s battles comes in the Battle of King’s Landing. After a handful of ships of the Iron Fleet were able to kill Rhaegal using scorpions, the same fleet and the entire city of King’s Landing is unable to kill Drogon with far more scorpions at their disposal. Now I like the idea of Cersei investing her hopes for winning in this one piece of technology that ultimately fails. But I absolutely agree that having seen Rhaegal so brutally killed in the previous episode, it’s very strange that Drogon survived. I really dislike when a story becomes inconsistent with what’s already been established, so either the scorpions needed to fail or they needed to work. We needed to see Rhaegal survive or Drogon be injured in order for the use of scorpions to remain consistent. As it is, it feels like Rhaegal was killed off just because he was in the way, and having two dragons survive Daenerys’ death wasn’t in the story. While it may be a stretch to call Rhaegal a “character” in the same way, when a character is killed off in what seems to be a cheap way like this, it never feels great.

I don’t like the argument that some people always trot out to defend dumb tactics and decisions: “it’s just a TV show/film/story!” Of course it is, it’s fiction. And as I said above, no one comes to Game of Thrones for a lesson in medieval battle tactics. But there’s a line between realism and fun, and a world like Game of Thrones’ does rely on at least a perception that character decisions are realistic. Trying to excuse a mistake by saying “it’s just a story” is silly. If characters have been established over several years as being smart, good commanders, and clever tacticians, it’s at best a change and at worst completely jarring when they seem to lose all of that overnight.

A Lannister soldier with a suddenly ineffective scorpion during the Battle of King’s Landing.

Tyrion is the character who’s been at the centre of these criticisms since at least Season 7; it was his insistence to bring Cersei into the war against the Night King, for example, despite knowing she was the kind of person who would let them down. And the mission north of the Wall was something he supported, despite being incredibly dangerous and stupid. We’ve talked a lot about characters seemingly going against what had been established, and Tyrion doesn’t escape that. Nor does Varys, whose overt scheming on Jon’s behalf winds up getting him killed.

Something I’ve noted in past articles looking at other films and series is that when a production has some problems, other more minor issues become noticeable. These points on their own would not “ruin” a better show, but when the spell is broken and one looks at a show like Game of Thrones with a more critical eye, minor issues seem to pile up and add to the sense that it was a failure. I’m thinking in particular about some of the production goofs – the modern-day cup and water bottle glimpsed briefly in a couple of scenes (that I myself didn’t spot), or the modern shoes worn by a character in one scene that I also didn’t spot on first viewing. In a less-troubled production, or a season whose overall story was better-received, these incredibly minor points would have gone unnoticed or been little more than a shared joke between fans and producers. But in a season which has been roundly criticised, minor points just pile on, and for many fans, things like the coffee cup just added to the sense that less care had been taken with Season 8.

Putting together my two articles on this subject, I think I’ve finally looked at all of the points I wanted to. It took a long time and I know this was a detailed breakdown, including dragging up academic theories, so if you read through both articles and made it to the end I hope it all made sense to you.

The initial question I asked when I began my first piece on this subject was: why isn’t anyone watching Game of Thrones in mid-2020? And did the disappointing final season essentially wipe the series off our collective cultural map? The answer is complicated, because one thing I’ve learned from reading reviews, criticism, and fan-made re-writes over the last few weeks is that practically everyone has a different take on which point was the worst. What fans do agree on is that the story of Season 8 was weak, that the season itself was far too short, and that a series like Game of Thrones should have been able to manage a better and more impressive ending. While there had been criticism of a decline in quality since at least Season 5, most people seem to have been willing to brush over any points from Seasons 5-7 that they felt didn’t work in anticipation of something truly epic at the end to bring the series back. The disappointment expressed by some fans is magnified because it’s the culmination of several years’ worth of seeing the series go downhill.

Speaking for myself, I’m in no hurry to rewatch Game of Thrones. It was a cultural phenomenon when it was ongoing, but the eighth season has definitely broken that spell. While I felt some points that have attracted criticism actually worked alright, I certainly believe they could have worked even better with more time and care taken to let them pan out. I may come back to Game of Thrones in a few years time, but I don’t feel like it at the moment. Last year’s disappointment is still too vivid and binge-watching the whole story just to get to that point doesn’t actually hold a great deal of appeal.

As a landmark in the history of television, Game of Thrones might be better-remembered because of its legacy and the impact it has had on television shows across the board, but especially within sci-fi and fantasy. It’s hard to see shows like The Expanse or even the more recent Star Trek series existing in a world without Game of Thrones. Its ultimate legacy may be that better shows will be made in its aftermath – shows which will hopefully avoid repeating its mistakes.

Game of Thrones is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray, and is the copyright of HBO. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.