From the very beginning, the artistry of Game of Thrones has lied in its balance between cinematic action and depth of narrative. Adored by fans and critics, it’s like a Marvel movie in scope and size, but with the nuance of a Best Picture winner. That’s a rarity, but also an achievement the show’s creators no longer seem keen to hold on to as the series rushes toward its finale.
In Season 8’s first three episodes, much of the narrative felt geared toward providing end-of-season fan service; that’s odd for a show that made a name for itself by killing off favourites one after the other. We saw the Starks lovingly reunite; Brienne get knighted and sleep with Jaime Lannister; Arya save the day after getting some, and a surprising amount of major characters survive. But each of those moments were either heart-warming, powerful or funny punctuations on these characters’ journeys. They felt earned, even if it was a lot of love and joy where viewers expected slaughter and misery.
In the next few episodes, the floodgates opened; we watched multiple seasons’ worth of storytelling unfold over mere minutes, a flagrant move for a series that made a name for itself by slowly building a war epic over a decade. We watched The Night King get defeated in a single episode; Daenerys Targaryen become The Mad Queen; the great threat of the Golden Company prove not to be; Jaime kill Euron Greyjoy; and Varys meet his end.
Clues were planted early to signify Dany’s eventual heel turn — her fetish for colonizing, her penchant for slaughter, the vision in the House of the Undying in Season 2 — but foreshadowing does not equate to character development. The last two episodes quickly moved from Missandei’s death to Varys’s death to Dany’s conversation with Jon to the battle, so that it appeared as if her anger’s final trigger was simply Jon refusing to kiss her back. It’s a crazy ex-girlfriend edit. Given more time, there’s a poetry to her falling prey to her DNA, lashing out at a city that isn’t keen to bend its knee to her as it might be to her nephew/lover, and a chilling realism to the ghastly turn the war takes at her hands.
That’s a character nuance that’s already been better delivered in George R. R. Martin’s source novels, where point-of-view chapters give readers essential insights. It’s why readers have seen the The Mad Queen coming for years; they know the why and a little of the how, two key things viewers have missed out on.
This rush to tie up the series is also why something as highly anticipated as The Hound taking on The Mountain or Cersei finally surrendering or Varys suddenly meeting his end felt so soulless; these unearned moments had no build-up and therefore no tension, which over the previous seasons was a Thrones benchmark.
Even the show’s cast have expressed their disappointment; Lena Headey (Cersei) said she felt “mixed” over Cersei’s final scene; Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime) admitted “We’re used to having a whole season to get to a point. Now suddenly, a lot of things happen very quickly”; Conleth Hill (Varys) said the last few seasons “weren’t my favourite”; Kit Harrington (Jon) stiffly described Season 8 as “disappointing” and then begrudgingly “epic, I don’t know, one of those”; Joe Dempsie (Gendry) laughed at the suggestion of character development in a Q&A; while Emilia Clarke guffawed through a sarcastic “best season ever” declaration on a recent red carpet.
The creators, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, also expressed concern for the end (much of which they wrote). Speaking to Entertainment Weekly of the upcoming finale, Weiss said, “We’ll be in an undisclosed location, turning off our phones and opening various bottles. At some point, if and when it’s safe to come out again, somebody like (HBO’s GoT publicist Mara Mikialian) will give us a breakdown of what was out there without us having to actually experience it.” Benioff tellingly added, “I plan to be very drunk and very far from the internet.”
That’s not to lodge myself firmly in the books-are-better camp. When the show reached its sixth season, it surpassed Martin’s latest novel, leaving the writers to craft their own narrative based on key details from the author. But it was a success, and a high point for the show. A lot happened then too, including the Battle of the Bastards and Cersei burning the Sept of Baelor. Like a domino effect, each of these events was built up to in seasons past. It wasn’t shocking to see Sansa turn cold and feed Ramsay to his dogs, or to see Jon proclaimed the King in the North; their paths had been drawn. Despite no source material, there were breadcrumbs and there was time.
But now it seems the noose has tightened. By opting for one final, shorter season, the creators have chosen to not only skimp on major details, but to go for shock value over substance. While there’s nothing wrong with shock, which is something Thrones delivers better than most, it becomes an issue when used as a deus ex machina to wrap things up.
You could never know for certain which direction Thrones was going to take — you still can’t. And while before that was the beauty of the series, now it could spell its downfall.