NOTE: This is a discussion of Game of Thrones as a whole as well as the ending, so there will be SPOILERS for Season 8.
Also, be prepared for a long post. I’ve got a lot to say.
Game of Thrones was a series that defied expectation. If you’ve been watching from the beginning, you know how quickly and easily events get turned on their head. Maybe more so in the beginning when there were more characters on the board, but the appeal of the show has always been the depth of its characters and sheer unpredictability.
It should be no surprise that as the final season aired, it would also take us by surprise. But it’s gone down in a way most people did not expect. And as a storyteller myself, I’ve been intrigued watching this epic fantasy finale unfold, and felt like discussing it a little.
Regardless of how harsh my criticisms are of this final season, I will admit, I still enjoyed it. Maybe not as much as I thought that I would, but it’s been a fun journey, regardless of the destination.
Here’s where the spoilers start so you have been warned!
I think the first episode that made me a little uncertain about how the series would wrap up was the end of episode three. It was a twist that many did not expect, and it revolved around who we thought was the big bad – the Night King. After he was defeated at the end of the Battle of Winterfell, it meant that the battle for the Iron Throne was going to be the ending climax for the series.
At a distance, this makes sense. The series is called Game of Thrones. As far as we knew, the Night King wasn’t looking to sit on that big, uncomfortable-looking chair.
And don’t get me wrong, the way that Arya finished him off was incredibly cool, but up until that point he hadn’t really done much except lifted his arms to re-raise the dead. Nor did any of his white walker buddies, who entered Winterfell with a cool group shot. It was a little anticlimactic. And despite the obvious threat the dead posed, not nearly as many characters were killed as you would expect from a series known for killing off characters.
But that’s what the show is known for – taking the series in an unexpected direction. So I guess it succeeded in that.
It was pretty clear after that development that the story might not wrap up in as satisfying a way as we may have hoped.
And I think there are some pretty clear reasons for why.
1. The Night King Bait and Switch
First of all, the big bad was not nearly as lethal as the series would have led you to believe. I’ve already brought this up, but character deaths were at a minimum in the last two seasons where they should have been heart-rending with their frequency. Especially since the series has not pulled punches with that before.
Game of Thrones has (or maybe had is a better word) a massive cast of well-developed characters, many with conflicting goals and grey morality. There are no heroes, not in the typical sense. And until the Battle of Winterfell, it was about all of these characters struggling with their own personal, and frequently selfish motivations while also finding common ground to stand against a shared enemy – the Night King.
This slowly creeping threat that we believed would be the series’ primary antagonist was really just an obstacle. A subplot. It was a distraction from the main plot which remains the game of thrones. It’s unsatisfying when this the story sets him up as the primary antagonist, only to have him taken out of the picture only halfway through the final season.
The ‘game of thrones’ that the series gets its name was the core conflict motivating literally all of the series until late in season 7. The plot with the Night King was a quiet one that slowly built from season to season. Up until this point, the series promised that the Night King was dangerous. That all of the characters we loved were doomed. But he was killed off in his first battle without making nearly as big a dent in the cast as we might have expected. It’s understandable why the viewers will feel a little cheated.
The series stressed over and over again that they had to come together or they would die. And here they are, fracturing all over again. But maybe that’s the point they’re trying to drive home. In spite of potentially world-ending villains like the Night King, mankind will make the same mistakes. The game of thrones continues.
2. The Ending Was Rushed
I’ve heard that HBO was going to do a ninth season, but the showrunners opted to wrap up the series in just one season. And it shows. People complained that things were happening too quickly in season 7, but season 8 put it to shame. With only six episodes, sacrifices were made, and plot arcs that have been building since season one are resolved too quickly if they get resolved at all.
And I think it boils down to one thing:
They wrote an ending and had to try and shove the rest of the season into the remaining five episodes in a way that would justify said ending.
So what you get is a strangely paced and unbalanced season, with unnatural character arcs and a few too many plot holes. You can feel the hand of the showrunners in the show and the script, forcing things along, and that ultimately breaks immersion and makes for an unsatisfying ending.
And because things are rushed, there is no payoff. Seeing Arya finally kill Walder Frey was SO satisfying because the Red Wedding was four seasons previous. Without that build up, there is less impact. And less impact just means it won’t be as satisfying a conclusion.
3. Showing, Not Telling
A story is impactful when you are showing the reader why and how something is happening, not when you simply explain it all away. Which this season did constantly, especially around Dany’s arc. And I understand why – there were only 6 episodes, which is not a lot of real estate for showing us what we need to know going into the ending. But I think a lot of the problems people have with the show would have been a lot easier to accept if the show didn’t just tell us everything we needed to know.
The dialogue, in particular, was really forced in some scenes, and this is why – they need to quickly tell us what we need to know to move the plot forward. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, even if it does weaken the impact. But it’s a complete left turn from what the series is known for. We have watched, sometimes with painful slowness, as characters have made poor or ill-informed decisions and watched those consequences play out. We were always shown the reasons why and to have them suddenly forced down our throats is going to rub the audience the wrong way.
4. The Story Isn’t Finished
I think the most frustrating part of all this is that the books are not finished.
I get what they were going for. It was a lot to take on. They made sure they gave the most important characters some closure. The Song of Ice and Fire series has a BIG cast, and there are a lot of moving pieces. It would be an intimidating series for anyone to try and wrap up in a satisfying way, especially if that person is not the author.
And that’s the problem.
Because the series is incomplete, the show overtook the books, and they had to write the story on their own. The showrunners were responsible for bringing the books to life on the small screen, but they are not the author, and they’re not going to know the story and the characters as well as George R. R. Martin, or be able to emulate his storytelling, at least not in so brief a time. It takes Martin years to write these books, after all.
Maybe I’m being a little harsh. Did I enjoy the ending? I thought it was fine. I would even say I liked it. Did I find it satisfying? No. It wasn’t what I expected from a series like Game of Thrones.
But now that I’ve discussed why I think it didn’t work, I want to discuss what I liked, and what I didn’t like about the final season. And I want to end this on a positive note, so we’re going to start with…
What I Didn’t Like
The Night King
I’ve already mentioned this several times over, but it bears repeating because it is probably the element of the conclusion I am most disappointed with. If the rest of the season was all attempting payoff with no build-up, the plot with the Night King was the exact opposite. It was all build up – 7 season of it, for very little pay off. Since season one, this (sub?) plot has been building, and I felt it was handled far too cleanly for Game of Thrones. There were far fewer character deaths than I expected, and any who were killed had long since had their arcs concluded or were minor characters. Don’t get me wrong, I hated to see Lady Mormont die. She was a great character, and a fierce warrior, but she had little impact on the plot. Her death was for effect, and it didn’t really do anything to the narrative momentum.
The Death of Rhaegal
I understand the technical limitations and the cost associated with making some CGI dragons look good, but I felt Rhaegal was taken out in a pretty sloppy way. As many have already pointed out online, the dragons should have been able to see all those ships. And despite having mixed success with the scorpions before, suddenly they get three good shots on a dragon? It just didn’t suspend my disbelief. Especially since Drogon seems to have no problems with the scorpions whatsoever in the very next episode. It’s not satisfying.
Too Much Fanservice
Some elements definitely felt more like they were played for fan service more than because they actually fit the narrative. The North separating, for one. While I like that Sansa became Queen of the North, it felt out of place. Like something that was handed to her because she would have been the only Stark without a ‘thing’ otherwise. It seemed just a little weird that the North, and only the North would become independent. Technically a Stark was on the throne now, and I doubt the Northmen would have as many issues as Sansa claimed. I think it’s more like they didn’t know what to do with her, and felt this would be an ending that serviced Sansa fans.
Jaime and Brienne is a whole other thing that I didn’t understand and kind of hated after the turn that Jaime’s character arc took. This strange sort of attraction between them was always there, thus the legion of Jaime and Brienne shippers, but the one night stand felt like fan service – forced and not something the characters would actually do. Jaime’s arc overall was deeply unsatisfying, but I forgave it in part because this is Game of Thrones and the characters are complex and the show has proven time and time again that it’s going to mess with our expectations.
What I Liked
Seeing where all the Starks ended up was wonderful and that montage at the end almost brought me to tears. I did not expect Jon to survive, and I was so happy when he did. As a character who has suffered so much, it was a little heartbreaking to see how it all turned out for him in particular. For a while, I was certain he would end up like Ned Stark, blindly loyal to the point where it gets you killed. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. I thought it was interesting that he seemed to end up right where he started, much like Jaime, only wiser and more experienced. I thought the ending for every Stark fit their character and felt earned, for the most part. It was probably what I enjoyed most about this season if I’m being honest. We began this story with the Starks, and the show at least, focused on them more than any other family, so it was nice to see the homage to their characters in the finale.
The Fall of Daenerys Targaryen
I actually liked the twist with Daenerys, but I just wish there was more of a build-up and foreshadowing of this change. Tyrion’s speech to Jon about their queen highlights so much of how the series informed this character arc, I just wish we were shown more of this beforehand. And to be fair to the show, I think they tried. It just wasn’t enough, and it felt like a big leap in her character that I had us scratching our heads. Still, I enjoyed the twist, and it was definitely the sort of thing the show would pull.
Personally, I found it quite poetic that Cersei was killed by the Castle she so desperately clung to. It was frustrating how little she did in this last season because it seemed as though she just stood around the castle looking over King’s Landing and didn’t actually do much of anything. A little like Bran, in fact, but I chalk this up to a very short season and the preset ending. They didn’t have the space to have her do anything except reunite with Jaime. So that was all we got. But I had no problems with her death.
The Broken Wheel
Despite her death, Dany’s wish of seeing the wheel broken was fulfilled in a way. It began with her dragon melting the Iron Throne, and was ultimately fulfilled by her former hand. It was Tyrion who suggested the Lord’s vote amongst themselves and that they abandon their old methods of inheritance. I like that they didn’t force the democracy thing – it was brought up, but they weren’t ready for something like that. Not yet. It was a compromise – positive change in the right direction. I thought it was a nice touch and a nice way of resolving who would rule.
I loved the dragons. That was one of the reasons why I started watching the show and reading the books. If they killed off the last dragon I would have been mad for no reason beyond the fact that I love dragons. So I’m happy to see at least one of them survive to the end. Especially after witnessing how overpowered they are in episode five. Seeing them flying around and laying waste to armies is just fun and is one of my favourite parts of the show.
Audience Backlash & Entitlement
One thing that has been interesting to watch unfold is the audience reactions to the ending. It has been largely negative, especially with more than one million people signing a petition to have the ending remade. I’m not sure what it is about petitions that make people think they’ll get what they want, but every time the audience seems unsatisfied with something in the media, a petition pops up. It happened with Star Wars The Last Jedi, and here it is, happening again. And I think it’s good to be passionate about something, but then there is this thing called audience entitlement, where, because the audience is so invested in something they feel they have some right over how it inevitably ends. They feel that they are right, and things should be altered to fit what ‘they’ envision as the proper ending.
In some ways there is truth to this – once a story is out there in the world and being consumed by others, the author(s) can no longer control how it is going to be received or interpreted. We make all the stories we consume our own based on our expectations, interests, and experiences. But does that mean that we can publicly criticize the people who worked hard on it, and disrespect a show we once enjoyed so much? That’s the part of it that makes me uncomfortable. When people let a few unsatisfying episodes diminish the impact of an entire series.
While this wasn’t my favourite season, and it didn’t end at all how I expected, I still loved the show. I think it’s important to be critical of what we watch and read, especially of the things we love, but sometimes I think that passion goes too far. It’s uncomfortable to watch other fans write off the series as a whole because of one rushed series of episodes.
My Final Thoughts
Overall, I felt the ending was a little messy, but ultimately I liked it. I didn’t love it the way I’ve enjoyed other season finales, but I was one of those fans who became deeply invested, creating theories about how it was all going to end. I’m so entrenched in the series at this point I’m going to bring some enormous expectations to the finale, which is a little unfair. Especially when you have such a short season to work with. I was hopeful, of course, but it was a tall order when dealing with such an immense story. And I think they did what they could, and I respect that. Emotions are high right now, but once the dust settles I think it’ll be easier to see that it was a pretty good final season despite its flaws.
If there is anything this finale has done, it’s made me really intrigued to read the books. Once upon a time, I tried to read the first book, and I really struggled through it because there were so many points of view and too many characters I didn’t care about. But I began watching the show and it really grew on me and I’m eager to give it another chance. My tastes have changed, and I’ve grown as a reader, a writer, so it’ll be interesting to see how my opinions have changed. Maybe I’ll do a read through alongside a rewatch. (EDIT: I’ve started a Game of Thrones Read-and-Watch challenge)
There hasn’t been such fanfare around a TV show since Lost, which had a similarly controversial ending. It’s understandable why people get so upset over something they are so invested in and so passionate about. And that’s a great thing. I just hope that people remember the journey as much as the destination. It’s been an incredible experience, and as a fantasy fan, it has been amazing to see a series like this get such an enormous fan base and to amass this sort of popularity. Stuff like this used to be really niche, and now it’s mainstream and that’s just exciting as a geeky girl in 2019. Game of Thrones has done something no other fantasy series has been able to achieve, and I’ve enjoyed every moment of it.
In the end, isn’t that what matters?
Did you watch the final season of Game of Thrones? What was your opinion on the ending? Were you satisfied with how it concluded? What did you enjoy and what did you find unsatisfying? Let’s chat about it in the comments!