Writing, like every art form, lends itself to a certain degree of subjectivity. A writer has something they want to say and they simply do so after countless hours of writing, editing, and staring at a wall hoping they can think of what to write next. The audience has a reaction to said writing – born out of expectations, experience, investment, desire, and digestion. Such reactions are naturally varied and that is okay – my own narrative opinions on television storytelling are not entirely in line with mainstream opinions. What I look for in a story is not necessarily what others look for. Even if we are looking for the same thing, we might reach different conclusions.
It’s been a year since the phenomenon Game of Thrones wrapped its run on HBO [and Crave in Canada] as one of the biggest television shows on the planet. The show definitively changed the television landscape. It won a record number of Emmys, inspired basically every network to start adapting beloved fantasy novels to the television screen, and created a spinoff that will likely air sometime in 2022.
Being one of the biggest shows on the planet had its obvious boons. But it also had the drawback of waiting when every pair of eyes was seemingly watching to see if it would stick the landing. Some viewers think it did. Others think it stuck some of its landing and missed others. I think that in spite of it being a musical and technical masterpiece, the climax and denouement of Game of Thrones were a massive misfire in terms of the show’s writing. And all those opinions are fine.
A Game of Quiet Moments and Big Moments
As a writer, I’m prone to the quiet scenes, the ones that allow for the audience to sit and digest the story instead of merely eating it. They’re often not the scenes that Thrones is known for. Ned Stark’s (Sean Bean) beheading will define television from the past decade. The Red Wedding launched the show into stardom. Cersei Lannister’s (Lena Headey) destruction of the Sept of Baelor is an iconic moment. Each of those moments and others landed because they were well-executed, but also because there were quiet emotional buildups that made all them moments land.
The audience knew that Ned was a kind man but that his kindness devolved into naïveté. That got him killed. We knew Walder Frey (David Bradley) was untrustworthy, but it was our acute understanding that Robb Stark (Richard Madden) was losing the political war that made his demise stick. The series suffered from the end of season four onwards, but it did just enough when Cersei instigated a mass murder that drew together the character, the story, and the narrative’s larger themes about power. Other parts of the story didn’t land and the ending suffered for three particular reasons.
The first reason is that the series started to lose the grip on what made it such a unique narrative in the television landscape. It started to rely more and more on the giant, bombastic moments that were a feat of technological achievement but felt emotionally hollow. In “Blackwater,” we were afraid for Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Sansa (Sophie Turner) and of what Cersei would do to herself and her son if the city fell to Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane). The wildfire was horrifying and incredible, but what defined the episode was how our hearts were beating when Podrick (Daniel Portman) saved Tyrion and Sandor (Rory McCann) tried to run away with Sansa. They were saved by a last minute rescue, but the episode made no attempt to hide the fact that if it weren’t for the Tyrell host, many characters faced certain death.
In contrast, “The Long Night” was a masterpiece of battle choreography and music that developed an escalating sense of dread. But the consequences, which had become a defining trait of the show, never really came. Thrones had never entirely shied away from the reality of difficult choices and having consequences follow regardless of whatever decision one made. Ned’s death was a consequence of his actions but almost no character of significance died in this battle even though at least seven of them were in situations where their deaths should have happened. I love Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) but he shouldn’t have survived the battle after he was confined to the brick walls of Winterfell against the wights. It’s not the world that Thrones had built. The series ran away from itself in the end. It felt like it betrayed what the audience had come to expect from it.
Forks and Consequences
The second reason why I grasped onto the show and the books in equal measure was that the consequences of choices felt real. Characters would find themselves at forks in the road after forks in the road. At each fork, they had to decide which way to go. It mirrored life a bit in that you have to make choices as the world presents them to you. Those choices see a person carve out their own path in a world in which privileges and social systems seem thoroughly entrenched. Sometimes that worked and at other times it didn’t. Thrones was about the systems of nobility and primogeniture as much as it was about characters like Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) and groups like the Brotherhood Without Banners. It’s why the world felt real – even when our screens were populated by smoke monsters and dragons.
People have different opinions about when the show went awry. I join the chorus that says the troubles began at the end of season four. Season five gave us the shock of Shireen’s (Kelly Ingram) execution but the quiet scenes laying the groundwork for that devastation were not properly constructed. The murder of Jon Snow (Kit Harington) seemed similarly rushed. Season six made some mistakes but seemed to recover before the penultimate season signalled the largest mistake of the show’s endgame. The season seven opener “Dragonstone” was an excellent instalment but the troubles began immediately. The showrunners, knowing full well that the audience expected Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) to make quick work of her invasion of Westeros, felt they had to toy with that expectation. So they did and while “The Spoils of War” is excellent television, the events in the two episodes preceding it don’t make much sense from the context of consequences.
Daenerys had two choices after she had decided to wage war. First, she could attack King’s Landing directly with her dragons and army, which seemed like a viable option. Or two, she could wipe out Cersei’s support amongst other noble houses and force Cersei to surrender after. Game of Thrones instead made an asinine argument a siege was more humane than an outright attack, so Daenerys was urged not to attack King’s Landing. It wasn’t a rational choice that Daenerys would make. The consequences from it were manufactured to give Cersei some sort of equivalency to Daenerys’s fighting capabilities. But that’s not the story Game of Thrones was telling and its sudden shift was bizarre and incongruous with what it had said before. The choices became manufactured instead of organic and the consequences subsequently followed in that exact nature.
The Element of Surprise
The third major reason the show started to suffer was the matter of expectations and herein lies a critical lesson for writers. Don’t bring in elements of surprise for their own sake. Sometimes what the audience expects is exactly where the story needs to go because the story led viewers to assume that conclusion. Let Jon defeat the Night King (Vladimir Furdik). Let Arya (Maisie Williams) use her ability to stealing faces and inflict some death of her own. There’s plenty of room for surprises and shocks when the story unfolds organically – one just have to give it the space to do so. Daenerys burning down King’s Landing should have had the same effect as Cersei destroying the Sept of Baelor. It did not. The Night King should have had an effect equivalent to the buildup of the White Walkers themselves. He did not. King Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) should have made more sense. It did not.
Audiences expected Daenerys to crush Cersei. That’s fine. That’s what Game of Thrones had built towards in terms of character, political, and military expectations. Carrying through with that makes sense. Audiences expected most of the cast to die in the battle against the Night King. That’s fine. The show’s opening scene itself set into motion the expectation that the White Walkers and wights were a nightmare of unimaginable proportions. They were then defeated in a single episode. Audiences expected the Iron Throne to be destroyed. That’s fine. Based on where the series ends and the larger plot structures it chose, a large portion of that could have been achieved without sacrificing the integrity and nuance of its earlier storytelling. Shock value might be essential in stories like this one, but it cannot be given more importance than the natural progression of the story itself.
The turn of Daenerys at the end of the series was arguably the biggest casualty of this approach. While not having access to her internal perspective, she was largely kept at bay until the story needed her to suddenly decide that mass murder was really her thing. There were moments in Clarke’s performance in which Daenerys displayed a sense of arrogance and a wholehearted belief in her worldview, but not enough, not nearly enough to make her war crimes remain consistent with her characterization. Daenerys, Jon, and Tyrion never became as dark as their book counterparts. The darkness displayed by her here, a darkness involving all three characters, therefore never truly registered. It came as a shock and a forced one at that, not the completion of a tragedy underlined by the inherent vice and all-consuming nature of warfare.
I Still Love It
Game of Thrones ended with some beautiful set-pieces, some enraging ones, and others that were, well, simply confounding. It’s a disillusioning ending to a series that at its heights was an incredibly cinematic portrayal of systems of power, the consequences of choices, and the weight of principles and values. I still love the show, its music, and its characters. The scene where Lord Varys (Conleth Hill) emphasized the nature of power remains a masterpiece. When Margaery controlled Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) with a crossbow, Game of Thrones offered a lesson in manipulation. Lady Olenna’s (Diana Rigg) dialogue was an effervescent delight for the ages. There was plenty to love in Games of Thrones and the ending didn’t negate it.
Loving a piece of art means critiquing it where one feels that it went wrong. For every scene I loved, I was also cognizant that Game of Thrones was a largely white fantasy where its characters of colour and its queer characters were marginalized and killed far more disproportionately than they ought to have been. For every scene of Margaery manipulating the men around her for power, I was reminded that the show came from source material that misunderstood the scope of power that women held in the Medieval Ages. But I still loved it. Critiquing Games of Thrones came from a place of wanting it to be the best version of what it could be and not simply opting to join a chorus of discontent.
I miss Game of Thones. And I will see you all for the premiere of House of the Dragon, whenever it graces our screens. Valar Morghulis.