Spoilers will be in this article, of course.
It’s been several months now since the Game of Thrones finale aired, and probably far too much has been written on the subject. Many fans were outraged when the most commercially and critically successful show of the last decade came crashing down on itself in a heap of ruins, and then those ruins suddenly burst into flames like a cartoon gag. There was anger, hurt, confusion and even a joke petition to remake the season. But, truthfully, a colossal crashing really should not have been so unexpected, especially given the increasing sketichness of the last three seasons. I would argue that the problems that rotted away at the quality of the show had been in display for a long, long time. I would even argue they can be found as far back as the second season, beginning to discolour the quality of the show even as it approached its zeitgeist.
Back in the 2011–2012 period there were two superficial reads on Game of Thrones. One was that it was a fantasy show with realistic violence and sex scenes and, therefore, ‘mature’. The other was the adage that “anyone can be killed on it!” a reaction to the deaths of Ned Stark and Khal Drogo, I’m sure, and later emphasized by the show itself. Arya Stark herself said such a line to Tywin Lannister. As the show continued, it began to relish in its grimness: “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention!” Ramsay Bolton sneered in the third season. Over the course of the show these superficial elements advanced until they became the forefront of the piece itself. The breasts of the early seasons were replaced as the tantalising distraction by high-budget spectacle episodes, eventually becoming a crutch to distract viewers from the increasingly incoherent and shoddy writing. And frankly, until the War for Dawn was dismissively shoved into one bloated action episode, it seemed to be working. The valorization of ‘shock’ as a narrative device ultimately crippled the story.
The internet has been awash with disappointed fans lamenting that even the ‘good seasons’ are spoiled for them, and a full show rewatch is an off-putting proposition. It is hard to imagine S5–8 having much rewatch value for anyone. The narrative purpose of those seasons appears to have been founded on two things: one is the ‘unexpected’ narrative twists hoping to shock the audience, or at least make them fear for their favourites. But when character after character is offed, it does not produce engrossed, fretful viewing. It simply leaves the viewer indifferent: it trains them not to care. It leaves not heartfelt tears for a death, just a cynical sigh. Perhaps more alarmingly, and contradictorily, it also makes it increasingly obvious who is safe. The ‘important’ characters in Game of Thrones became near-superhuman. Nothing could kill them. They’d pop up again, fine as fine could be. An episode ended with the image of Jaime Lannister, in heavy plate armour, sinking to the bottom of a lake. He was surfaced and alive the very next episode. The Englishmen who fell into the river at the Battle of Stirling Bridge must be envious. In ‘The Long Night’ episode, we saw characters surrounded by thousands upon thousands of wights, slashing and stabbing their away against dozens of overwhelming foes. Most of those characters lived. It was something out of Marvel, for a show that once was praised for its ‘daring kills’ and ‘realistic setting’. Indeed, the Others themselves underwent a transition. In both the books and season one they are treated in a mode of horror: wights are slow, blue-eyed, cumbersome things that are extremely strong and bloody hard to stop without fire. Season four onwards, stabbings and slashings, like in any blockbuster action scene, take them out. Usually by the dozen.
The second ‘key’ the showrunners worked with in the latter period of the show, as far as I can see, is to frame the seasons surrounding one or two majorly expensive set-pieces and contrive the plot and characters to dance to a certain tune to get them there. In S6, this was the battle between Ramsay and the Starks and Cersei blowing up the sept. In S7, it was the dragon attack on the Lannister army and the bear-er-wight hunt beyond the Wall (of which the nonsensical plotting was actually called out upon its initial airing, surprisingly!). In order to accomplish the desired S6 arc the writers developed Ramsay Bolton into a ‘Villain Sue’ character: one who illogically finds himself on top, without effort, and manages to remain there despite continually doing things to undermine himself. The book Ramsay is an upjumped bastard with no military or political training, he’s a brute and a sadist that openly relishes in it, to the point that his own father lectures him to reel it in so as to stop drawing outraged attention to himself. His depravity is known to Winterfell in the second book: ‘A beast in human skin!’ he’s called.
The show Ramsay shares the same origin, the same open depravity… and yet… is continually embraced by the North without any adversary. Even a mastermind schemer like Littlefinger doesn’t know about his cruelty. Indeed, he openly tortures and flays prisoners and small-folk, feeds women to his hounds and eventually performs the ultimate taboo — kinslaying — and nobody bats an eyelid. He is then shown to be a great military commander who thrashes Stannis and almost thrashes the Starks. The Starks who have no real battle plan, who one member, Sansa, keeps crucial information hidden because… they need a twist/shock/surprise at the end of the episode. The abandonment of logic and established characterisation becomes a recurrent issue in the show: people lose their wits to keep a certain person on top for longer. Cersei herself is given the Ramsay treatment in the next season: Dany’s campaign is stalled by ignoring the most obvious tactical move — fly to the Red Keep and burn Cersei into submission — to keep the Lannister lioness on top as a ‘central’ threat. Cersei magics armies out of thin air for this very purpose. Much like Ramsay, her murdering of hundreds — if not thousands — of people with wildfire is brushed away, nobody caring, nobody rebelling, and then, in an act of lunacy, this murderess is supposed to be treated as a tragic death in the penultimate episode of the show. It seemed fair to say that the writers had some baffling perspectives.
I bring much of the following up to suggest that the show “went bad” suddenly, or only in its latter half, is an unfair and rather questionable framing. Its issues had been growing for some time. Sketchy plots can be traced back to S2’s Qarth, or the immersion-breaking Talisa in S3 who went against the verisimilitude George R.R Martin aims for in his books, and the show, originally, sought to recreate. A number of plots in S4 began to raise eyebrows: the entire ‘Kill the Mutineers!’ story at the Wall, for example, hinges on poorly considered developments: why is Locke sent there if Roose ultimately thinks the scheme was unimportant, why would Jon think Bran would go looking for ‘friendly Wildlings’ (he had never met Osha), why would Sam break his vows to Bran, what was Locke planning to do to get Bran past the Wall and back the the Boltons, why does anyone think killing the mutineers is a good idea when a) there’s already wildlings across the Wall who could attack any day b) Mance and other deserters are already in the Wildling army and will know its defences c) the Wildlings can just scout it out with skinchangers: they literally open the battle episode with a skinchanged owl on the Wall. The plotting of the show turned scattershot. Pick any storyline post-S5 and study it closely. It often leads to a dozen “huh?” moments when thought about critically. To this day I still have no idea why Lancel and Pycelle randomly followed two nobody children to their respective deaths. Or how Samwell, with no surgical training, cured Jorah’s greyscale in one night by scraping off his diseased flesh. That covered almost half his torso. And was talking and walking (read: not having bled out and died) next morning. That isn’t how surgery works, writers, not today, and certainly not in a setting inspired by Renaissance-era Britain.
But I digress.
The show, over its years, developed a philosophy of brutality. One that bought into its own hype that sadism was dramatically interesting, that cynicism was inherently true, and that shocking turns were the meat on its bones. Osha the Wildling was brought back simply to have her throat slit. Perhaps most gallingly, the entire thematic purpose of the series — an external mythical threat that endangers the entire humanity of Westeros looms on its doorstep as the feudal lords play their political games — was subverted and pushed aside. This was not questionable adaptational interpretation; this was missing the entire point. The show ignored, dismissed and shrugged off its magical elements, failing to adequately set them up for much of its running, yet threw in enough heavy-handed scenes to establish that, yes, the Others were the major conflict of the series. Until they weren’t.
Perhaps the writers had been so emboldened by years of hyper-praise for their budget extravaganzas that they seem to have genuinely thought a near two-hour battle was a keen way to go out, and that praise would come again for another mind-blowing spectacle. Apparently not: once hype died down many viewers began to question the ‘why’ of the Others: why this plot line had existed, what it represented, what the icy enemies from beyond the Wall really meant to do, why they rebelled against their creators, why they were created in the first place, why they were asleep for a thousand years, what causes the seasonal imbalances, who the Night King was and why he had such conflict with Three-Eyed Ravens, why they came back now, and why they failed to advance beyond Winterfell, why they wanted to kill Bran so badly and so immediately, or what happened to Craster’s ninety-nine sons since only a dozen Others were ever shown on screen? The more they thought, the more the answers barely existed, being so thin as to mean almost nothing, and that’s if they were answered at all. And, as people wondered, the more holes began to appear. Many, many holes. As if the viewer were being poked by Needle repeatedly. “They are death and want to bring death!” was essentially the shows answer. As generically bad fantasy as one can get.
But the biggest of questions was this: seven seasons of build up, the opening scene of the show, the grandest chapter of the series: an elemental dance between ice and fire, the battle between light and dark, the struggle against the extermination of humanity. One episode. Barely any deaths. And lazily resolved by Arya Stark because the showrunners liked her (she also exterminated House Frey, was given super healing powers, ran around leaping from buildings a day after being stabbed in the gut, and could flaunt away from an organization of killers after spitting on its customs and beliefs; I don’t like the term ‘Mary Sue’ but…). The truth is, none of these elements were well-drawn. The magical aspects of the show had been shrugged off, cast aside. Both the White Walkers and the Children of the Forest were indifferently handled: barely developed, hardly explored, dismissed and filed away as soon as they could be. Some critics asserted the Walkers had ‘never been that interesting’ compared to the political intrigue (which, arguably, had been intellectually absent since the fourth or fifth season). I’d say, ultimately, that may indeed be the case purely because the show’s creators failed to make it so. As minimal time as possible was given to these aspects of the narrative. Petty backstabbings seemed more the show’s interest than operatic fantasy threats.
The Red Wedding, apparently the scene Benioff and Weiss really wanted to put on screen, seemed to begin their approach to shock as a predominant narrative device. Following that episode, the value of shock became written into the very fabric of their dramatisations. In the book version a tone of dread and tension is immediately established: the wedding is unpleasant, Catelyn is weary and out-of-it, the band is terrible, there is a booming drum, there is thunder rolling and rain lashing. There is a unsettling tone from the opening page, and it builds and builds to a tragic end. In the show, it is shown to be a happy wedding, until, shockingly, there is a dark turn. Even in the praised ‘Hardhome’ the attack comes suddenly and without build-up. The Others just happen to arrive when a truce is called and the some wildlings are getting on the boats. Book-wise, it's a desolate place, full of eerie history, and the wildlings are a people in plight: starving, desperate, resorting to cannibalism, and surrounded, already, by the Dead. I’ve always felt that establishing a strong tone, a potent sense of tension as we head towards something is more challenging and ambitious than suddenly pulling the rug out from under the audience. But this was the format that Benioff and Weiss approached almost every other ‘shock’ in the series with. The ‘turn’ had to come out of the left-field; as often as they could; internal logic be damned. In its own way, it became repetitive. More pessimistically, scenes of love, affection, or joy seemed less organic, after awhile, and more a cynical narrative move: they appeared as cruel set-ups to sadistically twist the knife when the next shock came. Many fans bitterly remember the sudden changes in Stannis’ characterisation, his delicate scenes with his daughter, in the first half of the fifth season. Or Sansa Stark telling Ramsay’s evil mistress that “You can’t frighten me. This is my home.” before she is raped and made afraid of Ramsay that same year.
But something about the final season really struck a nerve and many of those who would once defend the show defiantly, brushing away such criticisms, suddenly found themselves joining the chorus of critique. For some it came with ‘The Long Night’ seeing seven seasons of investment bungled, the entire thematic core of the story disrespected; others finally broke when Missandei was killed to motivate Dany to rage; the last straw, they said, in Benioff and Weiss’ questionable treatment of race and gender and its intersections. But for most it seemed to be Dany herself, when the short-life of shock finally extinguished itself. The liberator of the downtrodden, the abolisher of slavery, Mother to the oppressed, turned on the population of King’s Landing and roasted thousands alive. No one’s quite sure why she did it. She heard some bells, her eyes bulged, her breathing intensified. And she went ‘mad’. Attempts to prove her innate sadism were offered up — see how she did this and that — the problem being that ‘this’ and ‘that’, even if disturbing, were always aimed at the powerful: khals and slavers and lords waging war. Not the common men and women. Arya (the showrunners blatant favourite) astutely informed us all that Dany’s a killer… which makes one ponder if Benioff and Weiss lacked all self-awareness: Show Arya’s murders are often extrajudicial and all about personal retribution; pettier motivators than the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea’s were generally shown to be.
Now it could be Dany was always intended to go to such a place in terms of her journey. But it was poorly done. Audiences had cheered her on, invested in her trials, her successes and her failures. Watched her fall in love and question herself. They saw her birth dragons and come to ride one. They waited seven years to see her return to Westeros and try to claim the Throne of her ancestors. To suddenly play “She’s a villain — always was. Off with her head!” at the last was not seen as a brilliant examination of a tyrannical personality who believed in herself as though she were a God; it was seen as an insult. It was the final nail in the coffin of the showrunners having characters abandon their established characterisation for a twist. It had happened before, if never on such a scale. Nor was Dany alone that episode: even the reanimated Gregor, Qyburn’s Frankenstein servant, decided to bash-in his master’s skull after 3 seasons of loyal servitude. Why? To make #CleganeBowl happen.
The final season of Game of Thrones relied not on meticulous plotting, nor the coming of long-awaited emotionally-invested developments, but on twists and shocks and expensive action scenes. It revealed the final stretch of this groundbreaking television show to be unhappily hollow, and broke the hopes of many who had been forgiving (probably to a fault) of the show’s descent into mediocrity. But it caught up in the end. They designed the show to try to be as ‘unexpected’ as possible. While some tried to insist the slaying of the Night King was the natural outgrowth of Arya’s journey (which, keep in mind, had naught to do with the Battles of Fire and Ice until season eight) the showrunners openly admitted they did it as they imagined no one would see it coming. It’s a bit like watching Frodo and Sam struggle up the slopes of Mount Doom, dying from the strain, the heat, the traumas beforehand, and the power of the Ring, only for Ted Sandyman to swoop in on an Eagle, take the Ring from Frodo’s hand and toss it into the lava.
Shock can surprise and get the office talking the next day. It can’t sustain itself forever, though. Shock only works once. And in the end, Game of Thrones’ final collection of shocks turned its viewership to bitter anger. Shock is not a replacement for theme, heart, or quality. It does not reward numerous viewings, not when the story collapses on itself to attain said shocks. The more one looks back on the show, the more problems arise, the less makes sense, and the thinner the world and people who populate it seem. It relied on the immediacy; the ‘what happens next!’ effect. Once that’s been answered, what else was left? Benioff and Weiss seemed to worship shock and the unexpected. They worshipped a false God, it seems. In the end, many wounded viewers will never return to Thrones because of it. In the end, it was a years-long journey to nothingness. In the final montage, triumphant music played, as though the audience's eyes would be welling with tears. One imagines how many looked on in dumbfounded shock, hoping to God this had been a parody season and the real one would begin next week.
They might be saying now, “Write, Martin, write Winds like the winds!”