Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the first episode of House of the Dragon.
It’s been a little over three years since Game of Thrones went off the air. That show’s disappointing final season and conclusion did a lot of damage to its brand – and may be a contributing factor to the delay in concluding the series of novels upon which it was originally based. As I wrote once, the incredibly negative reception to the way that Game of Thrones ended effectively killed any residual support the show had and removed it from our collective cultural conversation. The show’s legacy is the reshaping of the world of entertainment, with high fantasy enjoying a renaissance, multi-season serialised stories coming to the fore, the “disposable casts” of characters who could be killed off at any moment, and more besides. But Game of Thrones itself isn’t the phenomenon it once was.
The rise of big-budget fantasy and genre shows in the wake of Game of Thrones has led to projects like The Rings of Power, which will premiere next month, as well as The Wheel of Time, The Witcher, and even to an extent shows like Star Trek: Discovery, which has brought into the Star Trek franchise some of the tenets of storytelling in this post-Thrones world. All of these projects, and others like them, mean that there’s intense competition for viewers in this space.
This is the environment in which House of the Dragon has premiered. Undermined by the evident failures of Game of Thrones’ final season and no longer a singular phenomenon, the series has to attempt to carve out a new niche and demonstrate that it can bring something at least superficially different to the table. More of the same won’t cut it for fans who were left disappointed by Game of Thrones, and with ever more big-budget shows in the fantasy space, House of the Dragon has a lot of work to do. Based on its premiere episode, I’m not sure it will be up to the task.
House of the Dragon needs to define itself, to stand on its own two feet and demonstrate how it can be something new and different rather than just “more Game of Thrones,” and in its premiere it did nothing of the sort. The story outline feels incredibly familiar, with a focus on quarrelling aristocratic factions as they vie for the throne. The aesthetic and feel of the series have scarcely moved, with the same costumes, sets, music, and even cinematography clearly trying to emulate what has come before. It brought back as much sex, violence, and gore as it could fit into its premiere episode, too – all hallmarks of Game of Thrones, and elements that helped that series to stand out from the pack in its early seasons.
House of the Dragon introduces us to an ageing, weakened king, a young Targaryen princess, a mad Targaryen prince, and even has the audacity to dump in some foreshadowing of the Night King, the Long Winter, and events we saw unfold in Game of Thrones in a particularly ham-fisted sequence that laid on the exposition with some pretty clunky dialogue. I guess some kind of overt connection to Game of Thrones was inevitable – but it didn’t need to come in the premiere, and it certainly could’ve been toned down or at least worded less clumsily.
In terms of visual effects, I again felt House of the Dragon did not excel – particularly when considering the sky-high budget afforded to the series by HBO. There were too many moments where the blending of CGI with real actors and sets was noticeable, such as during long establishing shots of the jousting tournament. Visual differences between what the camera picked up and what the artists and animators imagined were noticeable enough to pull me out of some sequences altogether. Some fully-animated sequences, such as a flyover of Kings Landing early in the episode, likewise strayed into the “uncanny valley,” and when we’ve seen lesser shows with lower budgets pull off similar sequences much better, House of the Dragon has definitely come up short.
This one is purely a personal taste thing, but I don’t like the refurbished throne room set. The iconic Iron Throne is now framed by a small forest of foam-rubber swords that neither improve its look from Game of Thrones nor come close to recreating its appearance as described in the original novel series. The effect looks cheap, and while I’ll credit the creative team for doing something to try to differentiate the series from its predecessor, for me it doesn’t work.
So far, I see no evidence that HBO has truly taken to heart the criticisms fans had of Game of Thrones as that series came to its end. “More of the same” isn’t going to cut it, and House of the Dragon feels like the second coming of Game of Thrones – and that isn’t for the better. If it was 2010 all over again, maybe it would indeed be good enough. But in a television landscape that has completely changed over the past twelve years, House of the Dragon has to do more than that. When compared with other offerings in the same genre on other networks or streaming services, House of the Dragon manages to feel aggressively average.
The Rings of Power is hot on the heels of House of the Dragon, and despite also taking place in a long-established world, that series feels newer and fresher, somehow, than House of the Dragon does. I can’t escape the feeling that we’re going to get a story that will ultimately feel rather samey, and while that doesn’t mean there won’t be twists, turns, and excitement along the way, I’m not convinced that that will be good enough. House of the Dragon has a legacy to live up to – but it also has a legacy it must surpass. When it comes to the latter, there’s no evidence that it’s even willing to try – at least, nothing of the sort was forthcoming in the series premiere.
Familiar musical stings, recycled sets, and character archetypes who harken back to the “glory days” of Game of Thrones’ early seasons can’t be all that House of the Dragon has to offer. The series needs to have the ambition to go beyond what its predecessor achieved and set a new benchmark. Moreover, trying to pluck those nostalgic strings really won’t take House of the Dragon very far with fans who came away from Game of Thrones feeling let down. Right now, I’m trying to decide whether the series is worth pursuing; whether this time a decent ending has been planned out with a roadmap to get there that keeps the entertainment value going. That’s where Game of Thrones came unstuck, so if House of the Dragon’s sales pitch is just “we’re doing Game of Thrones again!” then I’m out. I won’t make it past the first few episodes – because what’s the point?
For now, though, I’ll stick with House of the Dragon to see what comes next after this underwhelming debut. I can forgive a degree of looking backwards in a series premiere that aims to reach out to an audience that it hopes to bring back; casual viewers who may not follow fantasy but who showed up in droves for Game of Thrones. If House of the Dragon can begin the task of differentiating itself and standing on its own two feet in the episodes ahead, that will be a greatly positive thing and something that will certainly hold my attention.
House of the Dragon will continue to face stiff competition for as long as it remains on the air. Rising to meet that competition is the task the series now faces – a task that, arguably, its predecessor didn’t have to deal with. The shadow of Game of Thrones looms large in more ways than one, and time will tell whether House of the Dragon truly has what it takes to convince audiences that the world of Westeros is deserving of a second look.
House of the Dragon is available to stream now on HBO Max in the United States. The series is broadcast on Sky Atlantic in the United Kingdom and on the NOW TV catch-up service. House of the Dragon is available internationally via a patchwork of different channels and/or streaming platforms. House of the Dragon, Game of Thrones, and other properties mentioned above are the copyright of HBO and Warner Bros.-Discovery. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones Seasons 1-8 and the teaser trailer for House of the Dragon.
Practically everyone I’ve spoken to, from hardcore fans to casual viewers, felt that Game of Thrones ended in a way that was rushed and disappointing. Individual reasons for disappointment may vary, but the broad consensus is that Game of Thrones Season 8 – and to a degree parts of Seasons 6 and 7 too – didn’t provide fans with a satisfying ending to a well-established, decade-long story. Now that we’ve seen the first teaser for House of the Dragon, and gotten a release window of 2022, the question I want to ask is simple: can the new series successfully bring back fans who were disappointed with the way that Game of Thrones ended?
I haven’t gone back to re-watch Game of Thrones since it went off the air in mid-2019, and I’m not alone. As I wrote last year, at the height of the pandemic when folks were stuck at home looking for films and shows to binge-watch, Game of Thrones didn’t even enter the conversation. The way the ending landed for fans was so bad that it made going back and starting over an unappealing prospect. Despite the first few seasons being some of the best serialised television ever brought to screen, even those fantastic scenes and episodes are now tainted for many fans with the knowledge that the story they set up went off the rails.
This article isn’t a re-hash of my Game of Thrones Season 8 arguments. If you want to get my full thoughts on what happened with Game of Thrones, I have a two-part essay which you can find by clicking or tapping here. Instead I want to use Game of Thrones Season 8 as a starting point for the conversation about House of the Dragon, because whatever HBO and George R R Martin might want people to focus on as the new show’s marketing campaign kicks off, there can be no denying that it exists in its predecessor’s shadow – for better or for worse.
One thing that struck me about the House of the Dragon teaser was how heavily the new series is borrowing from Game of Thrones in terms of aesthetic. It’s a prequel set in the same universe, so similarities are to be expected, but if I didn’t know any better or I’d been out of the loop for a couple of years, you could’ve shown me the teaser and told me it was Game of Thrones Season 9 and I’d have believed it. We aren’t just talking about obvious things either, like the Hand of the King badge or the throne room set. The way the teaser used camera shots, the lighting for scenes and characters, and even the music all leaned very heavily on Game of Thrones.
It’s hard to see House of the Dragon as its own thing right now, and that could become an issue for HBO. Any prequel or spin-off naturally relies on what came before, but when you compare House of the Dragon to similar projects, there are key differences. Star Trek: Enterprise created an entirely new look for its 22nd Century setting, one which aimed to blend the modern world with Star Trek’s futuristic technology in a way that felt like a half-step between the world of 2001 and Captain Kirk’s 23rd Century. It didn’t always succeed at that, but it made the effort to distinguish itself from other parts of the Star Trek franchise.
Even the Star Wars prequels changed up significant visual elements. Some of the starships and armour designs shown off in the prequel trilogy managed to feel like a natural ancestor of the familiar Star Destroyers and Stormtrooper helmets we knew and loved from the original films. Other prequels and spin-offs likewise make an effort to appear new, different, or to have at least some distinctive elements that make the project unique. I didn’t see any of that in the House of the Dragon teaser.
When HBO greenlit House of the Dragon and considered scripts and story treatments for at least four other Game of Thrones spin-offs, the original show was riding high. Maybe Seasons 6 and 7 had started the process of tarnishing its halo a little, but there was hope and optimism that Season 8 would see the series end on an explosive high note – setting the stage for prequels and spin-offs and getting fans incredibly hyped for what was to come. The ending of Season 8 killed much of that hype stone-dead, and in the intervening couple of years it really does feel like Game of Thrones has completely dropped out of our collective cultural conversation.
In that environment, House of the Dragon needed to do more in this first look to reassure wayward fans that lessons have been learned and that there won’t be a repeat of Game of Thrones Season 8. The teaser needed to demonstrate that House of the Dragon will be worth fans’ time and investment because it’s something different, a series with a planned story that won’t go off the rails. By showing us something that felt very familiar and very samey, this first teaser hasn’t achieved any of those objectives. Instead it seemed explicitly designed to offer fans more of the same – more Game of Thrones. It’s as if the overwhelmingly negative reaction to Season 8 fell entirely on deaf ears at HBO.
Imagine being a huge Star Wars fan, then absolutely hating Return of the Jedi. It’s hard to remember now, but that film was once considered the weakest part of the Star Wars trilogy, with fans deriding things like the Ewoks and the Death Star redux storyline. But imagine being a Star Wars fan who’d absolutely detested the way Return of the Jedi ended – and then a few years later being offered the Star Wars prequels and The Phantom Menace. Would you want to go back and get invested in that world all over again? Or would you be cautious, unwilling to make a commitment to a new story when the last one just plain sucked? That’s the position many Game of Thrones fans – or ex-fans – are in at the moment. HBO is offering more Game of Thrones to a fanbase embittered by the way Season 8 was handled.
None of this addresses the merits of House of the Dragon. The series may very well be good – as the first five-plus seasons of Game of Thrones were. But the task that lies before it is a difficult one, and I don’t think that the way it’s being marketed – at least based on this first teaser – has helped.
House of the Dragon has to demonstrate that there’s more to Westeros than Daenerys, Jon Snow, and the Night King. It has to take a familiar setting and make us care about new characters and new factions all over again, to reset the lands of A Song of Ice and Fire and potentially tee up even more shows and films down the line. It has the task that Star Trek: The Next Generation had in 1987 – to demonstrate that a successful series can become a successful franchise.
For all of the lore and detailed history of Westeros that George R R Martin has written over the years, only one part of that has thus far made it to the screen. Many fans, even those deeply invested in the television show during its run, were only aware of events like Robert’s Rebellion, Aegon’s Conquest, or the Dance of Dragons from throwaway lines spoken by characters in dialogue. The lore of Game of Thrones was backstory for the events happening in that show – and whether any of it will translate to standalone projects and stories is now up for debate.
Where Game of Thrones excelled in its earlier seasons was its sense of scale. The world-building beyond the characters we got to know was exquisitely handled, and it was only in the latter part of Season 7 and through Season 8, as the number of characters and locales shrunk, that that sense of scale diminished. In short, the world of Westeros does feel lived-in, as though there are more stories out there to be told. That’s a huge point in favour of House of the Dragon – and other potential spin-offs that may be coming in future.
House of the Dragon also has the task of trying to appeal to new fans. Perhaps those who tried Game of Thrones but found its large number of characters confusing in those first few episodes, or fans of the books who didn’t give Game of Thrones a chance, as well as a broader television audience. The show can’t just rely on fans of the original series to flock back – it has to have more to offer beyond the existing fanbase.
With The Witcher Season 2 coming soon, Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel, The Wheel of Time, and now House of the Dragon, there’s a lot for fans of fantasy to look forward to. That’s also a potential pitfall for House of the Dragon, though, as Game of Thrones blazed a trail in the big-budget fantasy television genre that others are now scrambling to follow. House of the Dragon won’t have the genre all to itself, and Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series in particular will be a major competitor.
Although I have gripes with the way Game of Thrones ended, I’m interested to see more of Westeros. But “interested” is as much as I can muster right now. I’m not hyped, I’m not excited. I’m interested… cautiously so. HBO has work to do to rebuild trust between its creative team and the fanbase, and the number one objective has to be convincing lapsed fans to get back aboard the hype train. I don’t believe that the right way to go about that is simply to say “here’s more of the same,” because that’s what fans got burned by last time. House of the Dragon has to balance its place in the expanded franchise with offering something at least slightly different, and from this first teaser I saw nothing even superficially so.
I’d love to see House of the Dragon be successful. Heck, I’d like to see it surpass Game of Thrones and reinvigorate interest in Westeros and A Song of Ice and Fire after the disastrous ending to Game of Thrones tainted the brand. Maybe then George R R Martin might actually finish the novels! A fan can dream, eh?
House of the Dragon will stream on HBO Max in 2022. All properties mentioned above – including Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon – are the copyright of HBO and/or Warner Bros. Television. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones, including all of Season 8 and the series finale.
At time of writing, people all over the world are still enduring varying degrees of lockdown and quarantine. Tens of millions of people aren’t working at all, and of those who are, many are working reduced hours and/or from home. Despite the fact that the production of films and television series has ground to a halt, as well as major disruption to release and broadcast schedules, many people are digging into their box sets and streaming subscriptions looking for something to watch to kill time.
There are many wonderful shows being re-watched and talked about, but one that has had practically no attention is Game of Thrones, despite once being regarded as one of the best television shows of all time.
Game of Thrones redefined what a television series could be. It made the geeky, niche genre of fantasy positively mainstream. It firmly established that multi-season serialised storytelling is not only possible, but something audiences respond well to. It demonstrated to production companies and networks that investing cinema-level money into television can be worthwhile. And it’s not a stretch to say that practically every television show produced after its 2011 premiere borrowed something from its production and storytelling methods. It is a landmark in the history of television.
So why isn’t anyone talking about Game of Thrones in mid-2020?
It was only last year, little more than a year ago to the day in fact, that the finale of Game of Thrones was broadcast. The episode is the show’s worst-rated ever according to both critics and, by every reliable measure, its biggest fans. The question I’m asking today is simple, but the answer may be complicated: was Game of Thrones’ final season so badly-received that it essentially extinguished any support the show had? Did that ending undo five, six, or seven seasons’ worth of the best television ever made? Has Game of Thrones been wiped off our collective cultural map?
Firstly, let’s acknowledge that there had been criticism of perceived declining quality in Game of Thrones since at least the end of its fifth season – hence my remark above. Some fans and viewers felt that the show’s writing and pacing had begun to dip around that time – which, perhaps not coincidentally, is the time the show’s storyline went beyond the end of the most recent novel in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, 2011’s A Dance With Dragons. Seen in that context, perhaps a continued decline in the way the show was received is just something natural – culminating in a disappointing finale.
But it feels like there’s much more to it than that. We’ve undeniably seen many shows go on too long and lose their edge over time – but Game of Thrones is, as we’ve already established, not a normal television production. The rules don’t apply in the same way, largely because the story has been building up over every season. Every character killed, every army moved around like chess pieces on a board, every line of dialogue and character relationship had all been carefully crafted and built upon to get the story to this point. It has been one continuous story, and getting bored of it before the end is akin to putting down a novel unfinished. Television shows of the past (and present) which have suffered from running too long had almost always wrapped up their initial story and were telling new and different ones by the end. Look, for example, at Supernatural, now in its fifteenth season, if you can believe that. The initial story in Seasons 1 and 2 was about brothers Sam and Dean Winchester trying to defeat the Yellow-Eyed Demon. That antagonist was gone by the second season finale. Every story in Supernatural that came after was at best a sequel and at worst tacked-on. This isn’t the case for Game of Thrones.
Perhaps, in time, it will come to be seen as a mistake to commission a television project of this scale based on an incomplete series of novels. When production began, four novels of a planned six had already been published. A fifth would follow shortly after the premiere of Season 1, and the planned six novels was revised to include a seventh at some point in there too. I understand the argument that it wasn’t possible to know in 2011 that the sixth novel, The Winds of Winter, would take so long to write. But it wasn’t inconceivable, and a plan needed to be made. Unfortunately the way George R. R. Martin claims to write is without a detailed plan – preferring to let events unfold as he writes them, rather than planning in meticulous detail where every character is heading. The result of these factors is that, when the show caught up to the end of A Dance With Dragons at the end of Season 5, there wasn’t much for the showrunners and writers to go on beyond a barebones outline of the final stages of the story.
The show is also not a fully faithful adaptation of the novel series, as fans of A Song of Ice and Fire can attest. A number of characters have been significantly changed or cut entirely, as were some significant storylines. The show has also been willing to cut some of the story points that it did adapt if it was determined that, for whatever reason, they were not popular with audiences. As the two projects – the novel series and the television series – diverged over the first five seasons of the show, it’s possible that some aspects of the story that would prove to be important – either in and of themselves or because of how they affected other aspects of the story – were missing or fundamentally altered, leading to the differences between them becoming even more pronounced.
Just like how The Walking Dead takes characters, settings, and storylines from the comic book series but makes major changes when adapting them for television, so too has Game of Thrones. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing in and of itself, but a writer like George R. R. Martin is rather unique, and it seems clear now that the showrunners and writers of Game of Thrones – principally David Benioff and D. B. Weiss – just aren’t on the same level, especially when it comes to a world Martin knows intimately because it’s a world he created. Benioff and Weiss were outstanding at adapting someone else’s work when the story had been fully established; they were far less competent at making their own creative narrative choices.
The seventh season is where this began to become apparent, at least from my point of view. The mission Jon leads north of the Wall to capture a wight is, at best, questionable. And the way it unfolds is a prime example of how the final couple of seasons’ pacing felt off compared to earlier seasons. In what was essentially a single sequence we had characters travelling hundreds of miles, when it had been established many times across the show’s run that some of these journeys can take weeks or longer. As I think I’ve mentioned before, a story being inconsistent within its own world is one of my biggest pet peeves in all of fiction. Despite that, however, Season 7 was decent overall. I enjoyed it, and I felt it set up what could be an engrossing final season.
By the beginning of Season 8, the surviving characters are essentially in two camps. There’s the group at Winterfell, led by Sansa, Jon, and Daenerys, and the group at King’s Landing led by Cersei. The Winterfell group will face the show’s overarching antagonist, the Night King.
The story of the White Walkers, the Night King, and the Army of the Dead had been set up literally in the first scene of the first episode of the first season, and ever since, we as the audience knew that this threat was coming. As interesting as the wars and politicking was, at the end of the day we knew that it wouldn’t matter who was King or Queen if they ignored this bigger threat, and that really, the only hope the characters would have of survival is to overcome their animosities and differences and work together. This is why, as George R. R. Martin has said himself, the White Walkers are an excellent analogy for climate change!
Many characters across the first seven seasons had warned, informed, and prophesied about the Night King and his Army of the Dead. They had been set up as the main antagonist in the series, the biggest threat that all of our characters – heroes and villains – needed to be frightened of. The Night King was said to bring a winter that would last forever, plunging the whole world into bitter cold and darkness. Some of the characters who had sounded the alarm and who seemed to know the most about this threat had been killed off in earlier seasons, but that knowledge had been passed along. The reason most characters gather at Winterfell at the beginning of the season is in anticipation of this very fight.
The final sequence of Season 7 sees the Night King atop his undead dragon destroying part of the Wall and leading his army south. This was incredibly powerful, showing off the Army of the Dead at full strength – tens of thousands of zombies, if not more. This felt like the moment that the whole series had been building toward – and it’s the crux of why the eighth season fell flat.
When it was announced that Season 8 would only consist of six episodes, I was concerned. Season 7 felt, at several points, that it would have benefited from a few extra scenes here and there, and while making that season ten episodes instead of seven longer episodes might not have increased the actual runtime by more than a few minutes, the week-long break between episodes might have gone some way to mitigating the impression that some characters seemed to rush from place to place as if they had Formula 1 cars instead of ravens and horses. Season 8 being shorter still was a worry; it felt like they might not have enough time to effectively explain and wrap up everything left over.
As mentioned, there were two primary camps of characters at the beginning of Season 8. But within those groups there were many individuals whose stories were not even close to concluded; too many to list. Six episodes needed not only to resolve two major wars, including the war against the biggest, baddest antagonist in the whole show, but also give each character a satisfying end – dead or alive, their stories needed to feel conclusive, because a Game of Thrones sequel featuring the same characters simply isn’t on the cards. My initial concern was, sadly, proven right. Not only wasn’t there enough time to allow everything to unfold naturally and at the right time, but in retrospect, some of the limited time they did have was wasted.
Episode 2, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, is a slow, character-centric piece, following many of the characters at Winterfell on the eve of battle. On first viewing I loved it, but in retrospect much of it was wasted time. Not only did practically all of the major characters survive the battle – an issue in and of itself which we can look at in a moment – but given the failure of the Night King’s storyline, this dead time should have been allocated to explaining and advancing what was going on with him.
The Night King promised to be an existential threat to our characters. He wanted to essentially turn them all into wights and bring about an eternal winter. He was threatening, and he led a massive army. Previous engagements quickly turned into routs as he and his forces used a combination of their ice magic and sheer numbers to destroy the assembled wildlings north of the wall and even bring down a dragon – with one single hit! Yet the Night King doesn’t last a single episode south of the wall, and is killed in his first major engagement against a significant force. It was as if Game of Thrones was in such a rush to get to the Cersei-Daenerys fight that the Night King was just dropped.
I’m fine with Arya being the one to land the killing strike on him. It can be argued through the Melisandre prophecy that it had been hinted at, and it makes a good use of her assassin arc from earlier seasons, as well as being a twist on the expected use of those assassin skills to kill Cersei. That point doesn’t bother me. But we needed to see two major things from the Night King and his army in Season 8, and we got neither. We needed to see them win. They needed to win a major pitched battle somewhere against someone, and they didn’t. In his entire campaign going back to the first season, the Night King had never faced a significant opposing force. The wildlings were disorganised and lacking in significant weapons and equipment, as well as defensible positions. The rout at Hardhome was little more than a massacre of civillians. And the Wall was just that: a wall. An inanimate object. Destroying it was no mean feat, but it didn’t exactly put up a fight. The forces amassed at Winterfell are thus the first real opponent the Night King faces. His “Long Night” lasted precisely one night, as he was dead before dawn the next day.
The second thing we needed to get from the Night King was why he was there. What was his endgame? And why was he coming? The explanation feels like it was so tantalisingly close; between the Three-Eyed Raven, the Children of the Forest, and Sam digging into restricted books, we should have got a better answer. As it is we got an ambiguous throwaway line from one character, and then everyone moves on to the practicalities of battle planning.
For me personally, this is the failure of Season 8. Seven seasons’ worth of story, lore, and background was thrown away in a single episode. The biggest threat turned out to not be a threat at all, and not only did he lose and die with no real explanation as to who he was, what he wanted, or what he would have done if he’d won, the entire battle only killed a couple of major characters – both of whom (Theon and Jorah) had seen their arcs conclude. The story then brushes off what happened and rushes to the next objective with barely an acknowledgement of what had been accomplished, and with no examination at all of the implications.
As a storyline, the Night King was billed for seven seasons as the main event. There was still the war to be fought against Cersei, but I felt that was going to be little more than an epilogue, something to wrap up the remaining loose ends after the main event. What we got feels like a bait-and-switch, saying at the last moment that actually the Night King and his seemingly invincible magical Army of the Dead was just another villain, and that the big bad of the whole season is… Cersei. Maybe there’s a message there about how the real baddies were us humans all along, but it got lost in what was a truly epic anticlimax that dragged down the entire story of the series.
I can actually think of a better structure for Season 8. One which gets most of the characters to the same point by the end, and which still only consists of six episodes. This would, in my opinion of course, fix the major issues with the Night King storyline. Let’s go over my Season 8 plan very quickly:
At the end of Episode 1, the Night King engages in his first major battle. A small force, perhaps consisting of Night’s Watch and some wildlings, is overrun and obliterated in moments, with a named character like Edd being killed. Episode 2 skips most of the eve-of-battle drama that, in the real Season 8, ended up being little more than fluff, and is where the Night King’s forces arrive at Winterfell. The battle plays out more or less as it did in the show (though I would take this opportunity to kill off at least one additional major character) and ends on a huge cliffhanger: Winterfell falls! Episode 3 sees the survivors engage in a fighting retreat, heading south. By this point, Sam and Bran have put their heads together and used a combination of Bran’s newfound powers and Sam’s book knowledge to piece together the Night King’s origin, and firmly establish why he’s coming and what the actual, specific implications will be. They also learn, at this moment, that stabbing him in exactly the same place as the original dragonglass dagger will shatter the dagger and un-make him, ending the war. Arya would overhear this. In the next battle, perhaps at a location like the Twins, all will seem lost. The Night King’s forces will seem unstoppable and he’ll make his way to Bran. Arya will step in and do her thing – but this time the camera work will be better so we can see exactly where she stabbed him. In the actual episode it looked like she stabbed him in the gut; I didn’t even get that they were going for the same spot as the dagger until I read that later. From there, at the beginning of Episode 4, the season can unfold more or less the same as it did, as I feel that would “fix” the Night King.
Now let’s look at the character who seems to draw the most flak from fans for the way her character turned around in a short span of time: Daenerys.
For seven seasons, Daenerys had been the “breaker of chains”, looking to build a better world for her subjects. There had been hints that she had the potential within her to succumb to the madness that afflicted her father and others in her family, but still many felt that the rapid turnaround from where she was in Season 7 to where she ended up at the end of Season 8 came from nowhere. Fundamentally, I think the issue some folks have is that they were firmly on “Team Dany”. They supported her as one might support a football club or political party, and they wanted to see her win and end up as Queen. I can sympathise in a way; I had been on “Team Stannis” at the beginning of the show – he was the lawful king, after all! But I disagree that the shift in her character came from nowhere, and if it had been set up better and had more time to play out, it could have worked.
In my silly little fan-fic above, I said that I could make the Night King’s storyline work in a six-episode season. Having him play a role in the first three episodes, and with some more backstory and explanation given to both his motivation and how to defeat him, I stand by that. I think it could have been made to work. Daenerys’ turn to madness couldn’t.
While we had indeed seen a small number of hints at the possibility in past seasons, there are two points to consider. Firstly, it was just that: a small number. And secondly, they were hints. If this was the ultimate destination for Daenerys – and I’m sure she will take a similar path in the books if and when they’re written – we needed to see it built up slowly and steadily, not ham-fistedly dumped in with two episodes remaining. The fundamental principle is this: Daenerys suffered the loss of two of her dragons in quick succession, she suffered the loss of her lover Jon, whose true parentage gives him a stronger claim to the throne than she has, she lost Jorah, who had been by her side the whole way and was arguably the only Westerosi she trusted, she lost Missandei, and finally, the deaths of so many of her soldiers meant that the war against Cersei – who had betrayed her trust – was now in jeopardy. In short, she went through a heck of a lot, and combined with her family history, her going mad isn’t inconceivable. But it happened too quickly.
Within basically three episodes, Daenerys goes from the noble queen who tried to make peace with her enemies and offered her own forces to save the North to the mad queen, nuking a whole city and massacring civilians and surrendering troops. Such a dramatic turnaround needed way more time to play out – a whole season, at least. And to cap it all off, within a few hours of going postal on King’s Landing and declaring her intent to conquer the world, she’s dead. Over seven seasons we saw her grow, slowly and steadily, in confidence, strength, and leadership. And in three episodes right at the end she goes nuts and gets stabbed. I can understand why people are upset about that, even if I personally felt that it wasn’t Season 8’s worst error.
If Season 8 was going to be so short, we needed to see way more movement toward Daenerys’ character transformation beginning in at least Season 6 in order for it to feel like a genuine arc and not a bolt from the blue. Some fans of the show who were firmly on “Team Dany” may have still been upset about the ultimate destination for her character, and in a show that encouraged its viewers to support one faction or another in previous seasons, perhaps that is inevitable. But most people would have recognised that this was the way she’d been going for some time and her ultimate turn – epitomised by the scene in Episode 5 where she sits on her dragon listening to the bells ring out in King’s Landing – would have felt more natural.
However, the problem here is that the main events precipitating her fall into becoming the new Mad Queen all happened in a short span of time. The losses she suffered which led her down that path basically all happen from Episodes 2-4 of Season 8, and that just rushed her transformation. If there is an argument for Game of Thrones needing at least one extra season, it’s that. Daenerys’ character turn may be understandable and natural, but it happened too quickly and the events that led to it happened over such a short span of time that none of them were able to be seen to have their full impact. We missed seeing how each moment affected her and how each loss contributed another step down a dark path. In Episode 4 alone, Daenerys has to say her final goodbye to Jorah at his funeral, sees the Northern lords hailing Jon as a hero – Tormund even uses the word “King” – and then suffer Jon’s rejection again, learns that Cersei has reinforcements at King’s Landing, sees Rhaegal killed brutally by Euron’s fleet, loses many of her ships and surviving soldiers in the ensuing sea battle, and sees Missandei killed. While Game of Thrones has never balked at throwing a lot of depressing circumstances at a character, this is too much to take in all at once for us as the audience, and the meaning and impact of each individual loss and defeat is not given time to sink in.
In the very next episode, Daenerys has her dramatic turn and burns King’s Landing. Even taking one episode in between the events of Episode 4 and the sack of King’s Landing, focusing on Daenerys as she comes to terms with what happened, would have gone some way to mitigating this rushed feeling. It wouldn’t have been enough, but it would have been something.
I definitely feel that these two points – the Night King and Daenerys’ madness – are where the season fell down. The Night King was the most egregious for me personally, but I understand the strength of feeling surrounding Daenerys too, and in both cases, it’s painfully apparent that more time was needed to allow these stories to properly conclude. HBO, who produced Game of Thrones, offered the showrunners as much time as they needed: including extra episodes in Seasons 7 and 8 as well as the possibility of at least one more season. George R. R. Martin has said he would have liked to see the show go on to at least a tenth season and that there was enough story to extend it that far. It was a production decision to curtail the show at Season 8, and to cut down Season 8 to six episodes. In hindsight, both of these decisions were mistakes.
There were myriad other problems, though. The plot armour that protected many fan-favourite characters at the Battle of Winterfell is one example. Too many main characters survived and were able to continue their stories, when Game of Thrones in earlier seasons had never been afraid to cut down a character in their prime. Many fans were upset at Jaime’s perceived character regression, and while I will defend that point as a story beat as I felt it worked for his character and has a lot to say about love and loyalty, it was undeniably rushed. Like the point with Daenerys detailed above, Jaime’s turnaround comes from nowhere in one short sequence. Perhaps it was intended to recapture the magic of earlier seasons’ surprises, but as a character many fans were invested in the surprise fell flat.
The show also dropped a number of plotlines, either because they couldn’t be made to fit or because there wasn’t enough time. Sansa leads the North to its independence, but what of Dorne and the Iron Islands? Yara had been promised the Iron Islands’ independence in Season 6, and every Dorne plotline was abruptly dropped from Season 8, including Ellaria Sand, who was last seen in the dungeon at King’s Landing. Her absence suggests she died, but this was never seen or confirmed. No mention is made of what will happen to the people of Essos in the aftermath of Daenerys’ death. She had left one of her lieutenants in command of her eastern empire, but the show just ignores all of that after she arrives in Westeros. The Lord of Light and the Brotherhood Without Banners are both ignored after the Battle of Winterfell, despite the Lord of Light’s prophecies being important in earlier seasons. The surviving Dothraki and Unsullied are shuffled off away from Westeros with no clear leadership or any indication of what will happen to them. Cersei’s alleged pregnancy, which the show hinted may be fake, was never paid off in any meaningful way. Jon’s true parentage became an issue for Daenerys briefly, but was promptly dropped. The Iron Bank, which loaned a huge sum of money to the crown of Westeros, is not mentioned, despite the fact that they would want to collect on that debt. No one at the Electoral College (or whatever we’re calling that council at the end of Episode 6 that anointed Bran as the new King) even suggested Jon, despite him being one of two potentially “legitimate” claimants along with Gendry – who was also ignored at that meeting. There are others, some of which had been set up in earlier seasons and ignored for several years prior to Season 8.
What happened to winter? Game of Thrones’ world has seasons which last for years at a time, and the show is set during a “long summer” – one which has lasted many years and should, according to many people at many different points across the series – result in an equally long winter. At the beginning of Season 7, winter finally arrives. The Night King brings colder weather and darkness with him, but after he dies winter itself seems to go away. This ties in with what I said earlier about the Night King’s lack of a satisfying explanation, but if it’s supposed to be the case that he somehow controls winter itself, that needed to be communicated to us as the audience. It would have raised the stakes and would have explained why the show’s world resets to being spring after a winter that lasted a few days at most. In any case, it’s something that needed further explanation. I understand that from an aesthetic point of view, ending the show with the characters in the depths of winter might not have felt as victorious as an ending that was bright and sunlit. And it would have raised questions about whether they all have enough supplies to make it to spring. But again, Game of Thrones has never shied away from half-victories and outcomes with consequences.
This ties in with another point: Game of Thrones basically got a happy ending. Jon survives and goes to live with his friends beyond the (remains of) the Wall. Sansa reigns as Queen in the North. Arya sets off on a voyage of exploration. Tyrion, Bronn, Sam, Brienne, and Davos rule Westeros as Bran’s council of advisers. Aside from Daenerys and Jaime, the main “hero” characters from the beginning of Season 8 survive – and not only that, they win. Someone had to win the titular game of thrones somehow. But after a lot of talk about changing the system and “breaking the wheel”, the main characters basically reestablish the existing form of government. Bran, as he cannot have children, may be succeeded by another monarch chosen by an Electoral College, but is that system sustainable when a new monarch takes over who wants to pass the throne to his or her child? There were only a handful of people at the Electoral College, most of whom were aristocrats, so it wouldn’t be difficult for a future monarch to manipulate the council into giving the succession to his or her child or chosen successor.
Speaking of Bran becoming king, this is the final point where many people felt the story went completely off the rails. I’m in two minds on this point. On the one hand, I agree that it came from nowhere and that it contradicts what Bran said earlier in the season about not wanting to rule or govern. On the other hand, when compared to the Night King’s story being such a colossal anticlimax, I don’t think it’s all that bad.
If what we’ve been told about the show working toward the same endgame as the books is true, then Bran will end up as king there too. But I’m sure if he does, it will be better-explained. What we got was a single speech by Tyrion nominating him for the role, which seems to take everyone by surprise, including several characters at the Electoral College who have their own claims to the throne. Everyone then just… goes along with it. It’s over and done with in the space of five minutes, and then a few minutes later the credits roll and that’s the end of the series. Game of Thrones is a show that definitely became aware of its reputation for throwing up genuine surprises, and I wonder if that could explain the decision to make Bran king, or at least the manner in which it unfolded.
In-universe, there’s no guarantee Bran would be a good king. We’ve seen so little of his abilities as the Three-Eyed Raven that we don’t know what, if anything, he could do beyond warging into various animals and remembering a bunch of stuff from the distant past. As someone so concerned with the history and memory of the world, is he too detached from current events to be an effective leader? If he delegates basically everything to his council, are those people well-suited to govern? Let’s look at them: Tyrion and Bronn are both known to be people who enjoy drinking and visiting brothels, yet they’re Hand of the King and Master of Coin respectively. Davos and Brienne may be competent, though Brienne has never been in a genuine position of leadership before. Sam as Grand Maester simply feels like fan-service, because how is he possibly qualified or sufficiently skilled and experienced to be in that role? He spent a short time as an apprentice at the Night’s Watch, a very short time as an initiate at the Maesters’ Citadel, after which he ran away and stole some of their books, and suddenly from nowhere he’s appointed Grand Maester. That just seems odd. In short, in addition to all of the problems the new system of electing a monarch could easily create, the current leadership of the Six Kingdoms is, at best, questionable.
To wrap things up, where I personally feel Game of Thrones failed in its eighth season was in the handling of the Night King. That was the worst and most egregious fault, and it stems from a decision to rush through the remaining story beats. Partly the fault lies with showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, who chose to end the show prematurely rather than hand over the reins to someone else. But it isn’t fair to lay all of the blame at their feet. HBO allowed them to go down this route. And George R. R. Martin hasn’t finished his novel series, meaning that when the show caught up to the books, they ran out of material to adapt. As I’ve already said, I think in time, giving the show the green light before the novels were finished may come to be seen as a mistake.
The reason no one is really talking about the series any more is because of how badly its final season landed. The story of Game of Thrones is no longer that it’s “the best television show ever made”. That title, if anyone still assigns it to the series at all, comes with a major caveat, and an asterisk saying “except for the ending”. Game of Thrones’ fanbase almost universally dislikes the final season, and while the individual failing(s) that people are most upset about varies, there is agreement overall, even from the show’s biggest supporters, that Season 8 did not achieve what it should have, and that it was too short. Almost as quickly as it emerged in 2011, Game of Thrones has vanished from the cultural map. Its legacy exists in the way today’s television shows are produced, and the existence of series like The Expanse, Star Trek: Picard, The Mandalorian, Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel, and many, many others owes a lot to the trail that Game of Thrones blazed. But the show itself is tainted with disappointment, and because it’s one long story, a bad ending means many people are put off rewatching the earlier seasons. The current lockdown/quarantine moment would be ideal for binge-watching a show like this, but its universally-panned ending means that practically no one is. That’s sad, because the show deserves better.
Game of Thrones will be remembered by its fans, and we already know that at least one spin-off series is in the works. And its broader impact on television storytelling will last for years, if not decades. No show produced in its wake has avoided the influence of Game of Thrones. But its final season has meant that it’s no longer a show that millions of people will sit down to rewatch for a second, third, or fourth time. In that sense, Game of Thrones has disappeared.
I wrote a follow-up to this article a few days later, covering other points and going into further detail on others. You can find the follow-up article by clicking or tapping this link: Further thoughts on Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. The series is the copyright of HBO. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.