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Game of Thrones: A Personal Postmortem

Since my freshman year of college, I’ve been a big fan of both A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. Against all the anti-hype, I still hold that Game of Thrones is one of the best television shows of all time. This season had some flaws, but I’m still a big fan. I started this page to write about all sorts of stuff, and so far I’m four for four on this one TV show. As with all previous entries in my own song of ice and fire, heavy spoilers from Game of Thrones season 8 follow.

The final season is flawed. I don’t think I’m surprising anyone by saying that. I watched over the course of Season 8 as public opinion seemed to turn from blindly loving the season despite its flaws to blindly hating it despite its strengths.

And those strengths are many. The acting on the show is still top-notch, and even where it falters, it’s understandable. The romance between Jon and Daenerys may be unbelievable, for example, but after six episodes, we can tell that it’s probably not only a result of a lack of time for development, but also the added necessity of turning these characters toward each other, only to ultimately pivot them against one another five episodes in. The cinematography is stunning, if dark, CGI is beautiful, and set and costume design are immersive as ever. On nearly all levels, it’s the Game of Thrones we’ve come to know and love, and it’s a very good show.

And then there’s the writing, the ultimate whipping boy. The writing is the easy target for the lost souls of the internet, but for most of the season, it’s not necessarily bad. With a limited number of episodes to hit quite a few significant points, it’s hard to imagine how to fit everything important in while maintaining palatability.

The problem at the core of this season (and, arguably, the last) is its length. Where seasons 1-6 lasted ten episodes each, Seasons 7 and 8 held seven and six episodes respectively. With the exception of Seasons 3 and 4, which both focused primarily on the story of A Storm of Swords, the third novel in the series, each of the show’s seasonal plots found basis in one of George R. R. Martin’s novels. So up until Season 6, that’s ten episodes per book, or twenty really good episodes per book. For the show’s final two seasons, the showrunners elected to truncate each set of episodes by three and four, leaving significantly less time to adapt the unwritten into a complete product.

I’m not the first to point out the effect shorter seasons seems to have had on the show, but I really think it’s the most critical. While this season has, on paper, as many twists, battles, and shocking moments as any other season, the shorter length feels like it’s taken away a lot of the development leading up to each of these major moments, leaving them unusually unsatisfying. The idea of Arya Stark’s arc culminating in the destruction of the Night King and the ending of the Long Night is potentially epic, but ultimately falls flat from a story perspective because prior episodes do nothing to lead up to it, and subsequent episodes do even less to show us how it affects Arya and those around her. Similarly, while many have pointed out that we have more than enough foreshadowing to establish Daenerys as a potential Mad Queen, the lack of character progression to the point of madness leaves us feeling unsatisfied with the shift. We see Daenerys commit atrocities, but they never seem to change her, not until it’s far too late.

Headlines swarmed my news feed this week when Isaac Hempstead Wright, the actor who plays Bran, revealed that Bran being named King is an ending pulled straight from the mind of George R. R. Martin. To some, this was direct evidence against the perception of poor writing, and maybe my “not enough time” theory as well, but I don’t see it that way at all. Just like Daenerys becoming the Mad Queen, (I’d include Arya killing the Night King as well, but as far as we know, that’s a show-only plotline) Bran being named King of the Seven/Six/Four Kingdoms is a serviceable plot point. There are a number of believable ways Bran can make it to the throne. The show didn’t give them to us. The Kingmaking could have been an entire episode, but instead we’re given one scene of Tyrion making a (pretty poor) argument that Bran has the “best story” (one that hardly anyone on the already stacked council knows). Tyrion goes on to suggest Bran be king, a suggestion no one dissents to until the would-be king’s sister, and when she’s granted a nepotistic independence, no one else bothers to ask for one as well. Maybe if the Lords and Ladies of Westeros are given reason to see Bran for what he is and understand what his rule might mean for the Kingdoms, their decision would be sensible, but they aren’t, and it’s not.

This is especially tragic because, on paper, this season has as many surprises and big plot moments as any other. The Army of the Dead is defeated, Viserion is killed, Missandei is executed, the Starks all learn about Jon’s lineage, Jon learns about Jon’s lineage, Varys attempts to organize a coup against Daenerys, Daenerys massacres the people of King’s Landing, Jon kills her, and Bran and Sansa become King and Queen of two separate realms. Gendry is legitimized, Brienne is knighted, and Cleganes bowl. This is a huge season. What takes away from its luster isn’t that these individual plot points aren’t strong enough, but that there’s not enough effort to build up the character behind them. Viserion is killed randomly and without plot justification – Daenerys is in the sky above open water when a fleet of scorpion-armed enemy ships shows up in fair weather to shoot him out of the sky uncontested. People learning that Jon is actually Aegon (should’ve been Aemon) Targaryen is huge, but beyond the initial reveal, we don’t actually see it. We don’t see Jon struggle with his identity, not really. We don’t see his siblings’ reactions, and we only barely experience Daenerys’s complex feelings on the matter, feelings arguably critical to the plot of the show. Varys’s coup is poorly thought-out and ultimately unimportant. Daenerys’s descent into madness is less a journey and more a plummet. The emotional process and consideration behind Jon’s decision to kill Daenerys are almost entirely unexplored, and the show’s endgame is come to with almost no political gameplaying. Maybe it’s meant to be a message, but for Westeros, the center stage of Game of Thrones, to choose their ruler without any hint of a game of thrones almost reads as a betrayal of the show’s core premise.

So everything’s messed up and nothing makes sense. It feels as though I’ve gone entirely against my original claim that the writing isn’t necessarily bad, but I stand by it. While it’s hard to imagine there aren’t script changes that could have improved the final season, balancing time and plot is difficult, and the show’s writers didn’t have the luxury of being given ten episodes to build a narrative. Six episodes is hardly enough time to satisfactorily end a show reliant on ten-episode narratives. When we consider the fact that Season 7 was also (unnecessarily, perhaps) truncated to seven episodes, the mad dash toward the end becomes that much more difficult to sustain.

These shortened seasons built a worse show by necessitating the gradual chipping away at the narrative; an overwritten character here or there is necessary for any adaptation, a shortened plotline is to be expected. But when the showrunners started to see that every plotline was being dramatically affected by their new schedule, maybe they should have considered the value of a few additional episodes. Game of Thrones was always going to be different from A Song of Ice and Fire. Even with the show’s budget, cast, and crew, there were always going to be characters that didn’t add enough to merit casting, plotlines that didn’t add enough to need writing, and scenes and battles too big to be filmed. Game of Thrones had to be different, but it didn’t have to be rushed, and the sprint to the finish is what I think, ultimately cost viewers the best ending possible. The common rebuttal to this is that the show couldn’t run forever, but that argument doesn’t explain why its end needed to be shortened. If you can’t make it longer, so be it, but don’t make it shorter. In interviews, George R. R. Martin has repeatedly testified that the story has enough content for twelve or thirteen seasons easily. I mean, of course he would. That’s five more years’ worth of checks from HBO. He’s almost got enough show money to commit to the surgery and become Tyrion once and for all. But as convinced as George was that the show could run forever, the showrunners had a different idea. And that’s fine. This is their adaptation, and they knew the story they wanted to tell. Still, though, that’s on them. Flurries of folks on the internet have taken to pointing out that actors are expensive and will soon want to turn to other projects; they can’t do Game of Thrones forever either, but David and Dan had the story from the start. They’ve always been able to know how long it should take. And to be fair, they definitely did have to deal with an incomplete book series, something they maybe should’ve been prepared for, but not necessarily something they could have predicted in 2011, when The Winds of Winter seemed, at most, five years away. I can’t claim I’d have done a better job, but it’s a job they were confident enough to take. Thirteen episodes was a gamble, one long enough to play out the big surprises of an excellent season, but not enough to set it up.

Game of Thrones is a great show. A half-baked final season or two doesn’t overwrite its lasting legacy. But it makes me sad, and for that I can never forgive its entire cast and crew.

Guess I have to find something else to watch.

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