…as is our faith that Game of Thrones can end in a way that is satisfying to its fans. The long-awaited final batch of episodes are not without their merits both as artistry and entertainment, but they hinge on an unconvincing plot contrivance and some highly problematic ends for key characters. Here, I dig into the wreckage that Sunday’s finale will be faced with salvaging.
Note: The following article contains massive spoilers about Game of Thrones covering all 72 episodes leading up to Sunday’s series finale. Read at your own risk.
True fans knew that Game of Thrones wouldn’t have a happy ending…
It was only nine episodes in to HBO’s big budget, ambitious Game of Thrones that viewers learned never to expect a happy ending. In “Baelor” (the series’ ninth episode), the show’s noble protagonist Eddard “Ned” Stark was shockingly murdered. Now, of course, this was no surprise to the millions who pored over George R. R. Martin’s dense and sprawling book series A Song of Fire and Ice, from which Game of Thrones was adapted. But to those who were learning about the fictional land of Westeros from the series, it was a jarring moment that left no doubt that this was not a land where one should expect good to prevail, right to be rewarded, or character arcs to end happily.
The show doubled down on this over the course of the 67 episodes that aired over the course of seven seasons (airing from 2011 to 2017). In that time, numerous beloved heroes endured unspeakable horrors or met grisly fates (the Red Wedding still haunts me) and unfathomably cruel characters reaped great rewards (here’s looking at you, Cersei). Although many found the show excessively bleak and brutal, it became a massive cultural phenomenon in part because of its unflinching and risk-taking narrative (in addition to its stunning production values, captivating characters, and impeccable cast.)
By the time the final six episodes that comprise the abbreviated eighth and final season of Game of Thrones began in April, no real fan could have reasonable expected the show to have a happy ending…
…but they did it expect it to have a logical ending
After four highly revered seasons, criticisms began mounting about the writing on Game of Thrones as it entered its fifth season. At this point, most of the main plot lines had moved beyond the narrative contained in the novels, leaving it largely up to the team of writers to decide where to take the characters. Some fans were never going to be satisfied, as demonstrated by how they obsessively analyzed each plot twist and character decision and interrogated whether they unfolded as Martin had intended. Some were willing to give the team of writers the benefit of the doubt, but bemoaned increasingly sloppy writing marked by heavy foreshadowing, convoluted plot twists, nonsensical timelines, and unearned character pivots. Some loved every moment of the spectacle and simply didn’t notice or care that certain aspects of the show might be going off the rails. Honestly, I was in the third camp until the start of this season.
The final season of Game of Thrones has made headlines for its blockbuster ratings, its shocking twists, and the outrage it has elicited from many fans (e.g., the abrupt routing of the White Walkers, the infamous Starbucks cup). Countless articles have been written about its missteps, ranging from hysterical hot takes to deeply insightful critiques. I won’t recap all of the points that have been made here, but I will highlight what I believe are the three problems dragging down the show’s final season and what Sunday’ finale can do to redeem it.
#1: A shift from character-driven to climax-driven storytelling has fundamentally altered the show
As was well-articulated by an insightful fan on Twitter, a significant problem with the show’s final run of episodes is that it has shifted from a narrative driven by character evolution to one driven by wrapping up the action.
For better or worse, Game of Thrones is a show that has always taken its time. Nearly every fan has their vote for most infuriating meandering subplot, be it Arya’s time becoming an assassin in Braavos, Daenerys being marooned in Mereen, or anything involving Bran (the latter has my vote). As much as they may have outstayed their welcome, each of these plot lines was about developing a character arc or a theme.
As the show rushed into its final batch of episodes, the pace picked up rapidly and it became apparent that the whole approach to writing changed. Rather than leisurely following the characters around Westeros, the writers clearly decided how it was going to end and then contorted each character’s arc to fit that ending.
Don’t get me wrong. I have loved seeing the plot threads tie together. And, indeed, many of the long-awaited character meetings and reunions have been handled beautifully. But the problem here is that the characters are now changing in ways that are either too abrupt or utterly illogical. And none has been worse than Daenerys going mad.
#2: The final episodes hinge on an unearned plot twist
Daenerys Targaryen has had arguably the show’s richest plot arc. She was born to the mad king who was overthrown and sold into slavery, only to discover and embrace what she believed to be her divine right. From naif to warrior, the “Breaker of Chains” and “Mother of Dragons” set off on world domination. With that description it shouldn’t be that shocking that she went utterly bonkers this season. But that description doesn’t tell the whole story. For dozens of episodes the writers have painstakingly showed us that Daenerys has developed a strong moral center and a passionate desire to bring justice to Westeros. She moved past long-held grudges to embrace wise and noble men from enemy families (Tyrion and Jon Snow) and allowed herself to be vulnerable and find love.
So, what was the point of softening Daenerys up for half the show’s run only to have her go on an unprovoked terror spree including the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocents when she realized that most of Westeros wasn’t rooting for her (and why was she surprised by this)? Was it to show that she couldn’t escape the madness of her family? Was it to make commentary about the chaos and incoherence of war (as if the show needed to show that once again)? Was it to give a shock to viewers who found the idea of her ending up on the Iron Throne all too predictable? Or was it because the writers have no idea what to do with their female characters?
#3: Game of Thrones evolved into a show about the strength of intelligent women and now the writers have no idea how to give them a proper ending
For a show that has long been criticized for its graphic sex scenes, gratuitous nudity, and reliance on rape as a plot device, it came as a surprise to many that the majority of main characters left standing at the end were women. Not just women, but strong, powerful, intelligent, complicated women. Survivors. Warriors. Leaders. Assassins. Tyrants. By the time the show entered the second half of its run, it had one of the most fascinating stable of strong female characters on contemporary television. This is precisely why the ways in which their character arcs are ending are so disappointing. Let’s take a look at what’s happened to the women on Game of Thrones this season.
- The mystical Melisandre re-emerges after a long absence to save the day with her magical powers and then quietly wander off to die alone (but not before the writers remind us that her hotness was only the product of wizardry, she was actually ugly and old).
- After rising from slave to right hand of the Queen, Missandei is put back into slavery and beheaded. (The fact that she is the only woman of color on the show and dies in chains is a particularly ugly choice by the writing staff.)
- The stoic and loyal Brienne of Tarth was knighted by her comrades in a beautiful scene early this season, only to lose her virginity to Jaime and then get her heart broken, leading to pleading and ugly crying.
- Speaking of the loss of virginity, loner assassin Arya spent an episode seducing Gendry so she could have sex before the big war.
- Sansa, who arguably had the most impressive character progression of any character on the show regardless of gender, is still rock solid but her power was sharply undercut by numerous references to the fact that she’s only strong now because of the rape and torture she was subjected to by men.
- And then there’s Cersei. The show’s most fabulously evil, utterly spellbinding character has spent the entire show’s run overcoming the odds through sheer wit, tenacity, and brutality and has never once let sentiment distract her. So how did she die? Crushed to death by bricks while relying on her lover to help her escape as she sobbed “I don’t want to die” and clutched the unborn baby in her womb.
- As described above, Daenerys went mad for no reason. You know, as women do.
- Oh and who knows if we’ll ever see Yara again. But judging by how this season is going, if we do see her it will probably be in a reprisal of her salacious lesbian sex scene.
It is by no means wrong to have female characters fall in love, have sex, care about their unborn child, or meet untimely deaths, but the cumulative effect of so many egregiously stereotypical endings for it female characters is deeply disappointing.
What the finale needs to do to salvage things
There is absolutely no way Game of Thrones can right all the wrongs of the past few episodes. Nor can it tie up the loose ends as far more significant characters and plot lines are left unresolved than can ever be dealt with in 80 minutes. But hopefully it will do many things right. My hope is that the finale …
- Resists the urge to spend time setting up the spin-offs. Sure, we know HBO is investing a lot in turning Game of Thrones into a franchise, but — please — no distracting allusions to what will come.
- Provides some logic or nuance to Daenerys’ descent. The writers don’t have to try and rehabilitate her character at this point (that ship has sailed off to the Iron Islands) but there are things they can do to bring her plot arc to a less disastrous close than it looks destined for.
- Leaves the Three-Eyed Raven mythology alone. There are some things I would rather see unexplained than have to see the precious remaining moments of the show focus on. Chief among these is what the hell the point of the Three Eyed Raven arc was.
- Sends Tyrion out with a bang. As his three Emmys (and probably a fourth come September) indicate, Peter Dinklage’s sharp-tongued Tyrion Lannister was the soul of the series from start to finish. He deserves a grand finale; at the very least, something more satisfying than his brother and sister received.
- Gives a noble end to Sansa and Brienne. The disappointing endings befalling the women of Westeros could be partially rectified by Sansa and Brienne’s arcs wrapping up in an empowering, thoughtful way.
- Doesn’t end too happily or cleanly. My all-too-possible nightmare scenario: There will be a blood bath that leaves Daenerys, Jon, and Arya dead. Sansa and Tyrion decide to destroy the the terror-breeding Iron Throne once and for all and let the seven kingdoms self govern (Sansa in the North, Tyrion in the remains of Kings Landing, Yara in the Iron Islands, etc.) Peace is restored. Spring arrives. As pretty as that might be, it’s not true to Game of Thrones. Admittedly, my dream of seeing Cersei outmaneuver everyone at the last minute to remain on the Iron Throne is now impossible, so whatever dark twist they (hopefully) conjure up will just have to take me by surprise.