Game of Thrones has been a big part of my life since I first started watching it. Not only because I’ve loved any time I have been able to spend in this world. Or because of how attached I’ve grown to some of its characters. Or because of the unmatched spectacle that the series has delivered to my television screen. It was more than that. Watching the show made me read the books which reignited my love for reading. This in turn led me to trying my hand at writing a novel of my own. My weekly episodic reviews for the show on this site and others were also some of the most rewarding pieces I’ve written since I started blogging over a decade ago. It led to wonderful interactions with other fans many of whom I still interact with now even after I was no longer able to keep up with the weekly posts during the past few years. So it was with both sadness and excitement that I entered Game of Thrones‘ final season. I so badly wanted to see how it would all finish and where these characters would end up, but I would also miss getting to spend an hour a week in Westeros for a few months each year. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the hugest fan of how it all came to a close – or perhaps more specifically the way it arrived at its conclusion.
To be fair, it started off well enough. “Winterfell” was the classic Game of Thrones opener. It reminds viewers where we left off while setting the table for the season to come – superfluous dragon-riding sequence notwithstanding. The second episode “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” is surely the best episode of GoT’s final batch. On the eve of the battle between the living and the dead, many of the characters spend what may very well be their final moments together. While Game of Thrones‘ most memorable sequences may be its eye-catching battles, many of its best moments simply find a couple characters sitting around talking. We get plenty of that here. Not knowing if they will live to see the next day, we get heartfelt goodbyes alongside lovely bits of humor. We even see some characters making the most of what little time they have left to tackle big life experiences like Arya losing her virginity. And in what was on the short list for my favorite moment of the season, we saw Jaime knight Brienne. To be honest, I think I wish this was their last big moment together as it was simply wonderful. Along with it being an emotional episode for the characters, it was for me as well. I wasn’t sure which of these characters might perish in a week’s time and the gatherings and moments that filled the runtime of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” felt like a goodbye for me too.
Things start to go downhill in Episode 3. Game of Thrones has always dealt with prophecy. Foreshadowing is a big part of the series. For years, Melisandre has told us that “The Night is Dark and Full of Terrors.” Clearly she was talking about “The Long Night.” No not the time of darkness that the Night King and his army threatened to bring to Westeros, but the third episode of the eighth season of Game of Thrones. Because this episode was fucking DARK. And it is clear now that the “Terrors” she was referring to were compression artifacts which combined with the dim lighting to make it hard to see what exactly was going on for the early parts of the episode. It also felt like the Night King and company went out like chumps given the series-long buildup of their dangerous presence. As much as I thought many characters might meet their maker in this episode, the dead seemed to barely make a dent in the major cast with Theon and Jorah being the biggest losses. I did like Arya being the one to land the final blow to end it all. I assumed it’d be Jon, but this lent a real purpose behind Arya’s training in Braavos beyond her personal revenge. I found myself scratching my head when thinking of the logistics of how she pulled it off and the same could go for the strategies employed by both sides of this conflict in general, but I think Arya finishing it works for me. And despite my issues, “The Long Night” certainly had its moments. The atmosphere was tense and when I could see what was going on it delivered some breathtaking visuals – like the dragons popping above the clouds in battle. But ultimately I believe this battle struggled to live up to some of the series’ legendary predecessors like the ones at Hardhome and The Wall or The Battle of the Bastards.
Now I’ll get to what was perhaps the most controversial aspect of the final season: Daenerys’ turn. If you have read my reviews over the years, you know Dany has been my favorite character from the beginning. I fell for her during the Season 1/Book 1 arc that saw her go from essentially being sold off as a child bride to blossoming into a powerful figure by the end. (Plus she got dragons. Dragons are cool.) And yet, I always suspected the possibility that she could turn out to be a villain by the end of the series. I speculated about that very thing some years ago with my book reading friends. I thought when Dany arrived on the shores of Westeros with a horde of barbaric horse-lords in the Dothraki, a legion of well-trained killing machines in the Unsullied and three dragons – essentially WMD’s in the world of Game of Thrones – she may be looked at as the villain especially as she tried to conquer her way to the throne. But they never really sold her this way much during her time in Westeros. I think further complicating the matter is Cersei’s position as queen. I believe a more benevolent character will likely sit the throne when Dany goes to take it in the books (probably “Young Griff” a book-only character). I think this will likely help sell the idea of the people not wanting her to take it even if she believes it to be her birthright. Cersei just got done blowing up the Sept of Baelor a couple seasons back killing loads of innocents in the process. I think Dany wanting to take the throne from her, makes her build up to being the series’ final villain more difficult.
So, GoT’s writers look to get Dany to her final position in other ways, often utilizing completely illogical events to propel her there and the whole thing ends up feeling rushed and haphazard. Like Rhaegal’s contrived death. Or the absurd way in which Missandei was captured. Or the fashion in which the secret of Jon’s parentage was spread. Or the manufactured idea that the people will love Jon more. Sure, the North loves Jon, but the South doesn’t care. I don’t think that changes a ton just because he’s Rhaegar’s son. Hell, Dorne, who had pledged themselves to Dany already, might like Jon LESS when they find out he’s Rhaegar’s son due to how that came about. And this whole mess about claims is kind of silly when someone takes the throne by conquest anyhow, but I digress. Then there is the moment where Dany actually snaps. It felt like too much. If despite the bells ringing, she had still attacked the Red Keep to take it from Cersei causing collateral damage to the civilians brought inside the gates that is something I could buy. But her going berzerk on all the innocents throughout the city just doesn’t work for me particularly given the events that precede it. I’ve heard all the evidence people cite of her moments throughout the series where she went over the line or had to be tempered by cooler heads, but this still feels like a step (or many steps to be honest) too far. This was a woman who put her obsession with the throne on hold to help save the world mere episodes before. So if it was the most recent events that I mentioned above that pushed her over the edge, they needed to bring them about in a much more intelligible way for me to get behind Dany’s trajectory. But I think the truth is, the way this played out lines up with the showrunners’ typical MOs. This was their intention. They valued the shock of Dany’s evil turn over a proper character arc like they have valued shock over more important things in the past. And if they had done what I suggested and just had Dany attack the keep and kill innocents in the process, it would have put her in more of a morally grey area. Benioff and Weiss aren’t the subtle types. They wanted this black and white, so Jon could kill her half an episode later and they could move on. Or that’s certainly how it felt to me.
I think given the proper build up to it, this could have been a great development for the end of the show. Daenerys was always going to roll over Cersei. With the army of the dead defeated so easily, something needed to happen to make the final confrontation interesting. And there is certainly an argument to be made that this sort of tragic series-long arc would be fitting for Game of Thrones. I just don’t believe it was handled the way it needed to be for it to work here.
I want to mention a couple more things regarding this before I move on. Whether you saw Dany’s turn coming or didn’t. Whether you think it makes sense or not. Regardless of those things, it’s okay to be disappointed it happened. Even as someone who suspected it might for years. Even as someone who thought it was very obviously happening after Episode 4 of this season, I was crossing my fingers that she wouldn’t go scorched earth until the very final moment as I saw her contemplating that very thing sitting atop Drogon as the bells rang out in King’s Landing. And when she did, I was sad. I wanted better for her given where she was at the onset of this series. I find it so weird that so many reveled in other fans’ sadness saying they should have seen it coming and all this other stuff. Does it matter if they saw it coming or not? Can they still be sad it happened especially given her beginnings in this series? Given what she’s gone through? Despite this being the sort of thing Game of Thrones has done to fans in the past? I say yes. It’s okay to be bummed. I was. And seeing Drogon nudge her after she was killed was absolutely heartbreaking for me. But again, if I liked the way we got to this point, I could deal with being sad more easily.
The other thing I don’t want to gloss over is Emilia Clarke’s performance. Despite my issues with the writing during this season and for her character, I thought Emilia did the absolute best she could to sell her pain and anguish and the change in her demeanor every step of the way. Many have been critical of her acting over the years, but I thought she did a fantastic job with what she was given in this final season.
On to that meeting after Dany dies where everyone gets together and decides who will be king. It was the worst. THE ABSOLUTE WORST. This is like that meeting we’ve all been to at work. At the end, the boss asks if anyone has any questions and you all think if we just mumble and shake our heads no, we can get out of here. I think that’s what happens here (though to be fair, in the actual work scenario, some asshole always raises their hand at the last minute to extend your stay). Tyrion, a prisoner brought out in shackles who hasn’t had a good idea in like two years, just tells everyone to crown Bran as King… and they just go along with it. Tyrion says Bran has the best story which no one I’ve talked to or heard from in real life agrees with (the most talented quarterback to ever live included), so surely no one in that meeting agrees with it, but they just go along with it! Well except Sansa, she’s decides the North will be independent which… okay cool. But none of the other kingdoms say, “No wait. Yeah we’ll actually go the independent route too. That sounds like a sweet deal.” Even the two that are pissed Jon went and killed Dany – Dornish Prince #4 and Yara – are like, “Yeah, whatever gets me out of this meeting. I’ve got girls to fuck and some ale (or a nice Dornish Red in the Prince’s case) to drink.” Oh and Bran lets it slip that he kind of sort of knew that he’d be king and presumably that Dany would barbeque a few hundred thousand people to get him there and didn’t he say earlier he wasn’t really Bran anymore, but the Three-Eyed Raven now and isn’t anyone worried that that might be troublesome? No. THEY JUST GO ALONG WITH IT. And how is Jon even alive at this point? Grey Worm stepped to him when he didn’t like the idea of him killing rando red shirt Lannister goons. But Jon kills his Queen and as far as we know (because the show just jumps ahead a few weeks on a fade out/in?!) goes and confesses afterwards because otherwise how would anyone know because Drogon just flew off with Dany’s body and Grey Worm somehow let’s Jon live and AAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!!?!??!
Phew. Breathe Matt. BREATHE.
So, yeah the meeting was stupid. Like REALLY stupid. But I think ultimately some of the endings for characters work pretty well. Some were upset Jon wasn’t on the throne, but he never wanted to be. Sure they sent him to go to the Night’s Watch again, but it seemed like he fucked off right away to live up in the North with his best bros Tormund and Ghost. He could do worse. Maybe he can settle down with a nice fiery-headed wildling girl or something. Sansa being Queen in the North seems predictable but nice. Brienne as the leader of the Kingsguard couldn’t be much more fitting. Arya moving past her lust for revenge and living a life of adventure similar to one of her heroes Nymeria is a little out there, but I can live with it. And while it was pre-meeting, The Hound dying while killing his brother was perfection (and Cersei slinking by their brouhaha perhaps the best moment in television history). Sure others work less well. Bronn seemed to be appointed Master of Coin just so the writers could squeeze in one last brothel joke. Jaime’s was a mess but after his last three seasons, we should have expected nothing else. Still, a lot of the big ones work for me. Or would work if they had built to them properly.
More than even Seasons 6 and 7, Game of Thrones’ final lap felt like it was rushing to the finish line. It’s sprinkled with bits I loved, many of which I wasn’t able to recount here (like that shot of Daenerys walking out to address her army in the finale as Drogon takes to the air framing her with his wings which was just spectacular). And I think on paper, some of its larger ideas could have worked. But too often we seem to be jumping between these big moments without taking the necessary steps to get to them. Without the proper character development, many of the actions taken by the major players in Game of Thrones don’t land as they should. Without the more deliberate and nuanced storytelling and plotting of earlier seasons, I was left feeling that many of these characters’ ending spots didn’t feel earned. As a result, I was left disappointed with Game of Thrones’ final season. Though I feel like most of that was due to the writing. The acting and casting, set and costume design, special effects and direction (odd photography decisions in Episode 3 notwithstanding) were all largely top-notch. And while I was let down by how it ended, I’ll still think back fondly about the series as a whole. When it was at the top of its game, few shows could match it and I’ll miss it regardless of my issues with it down the stretch.