Game of Thrones: A Retrospective

So last night[1] was the final finale ever for Game of Thrones. There's a lot to unpack, and just about everyone on the web seems to be doing just that, but the tl;dr of it all (for me, at least) was that we got a really solid conclusion that nicely balanced fandom and narrative threads. It definitely wasn't jaw dropping or life changing or anything like that, but it was a really well paced ending to a very solid fantasy series. Whilst we don't yet truly know what the original story has in store for these characters, I don't think you could ever do the books better justice than the HBO series that we got. Casting was pretty much perfect throughout; the effects, costumes and general visuals have always been top notch; and the script itself (admittedly particularly for those seasons pulling directly from the source material) has been entertaining at worst and spell binding at best. It's a series that I think will rightfully become a classic and I really hope it continues to be something that people recommend for years to come, because I genuinely don't think we'll be getting a better prime-time fantasy show any time soon[2].

That said, I'm aware that not everyone is exactly happy. As of writing this, a petition exists with almost 1.4 million signatures aiming to have season eight officially remade, so that's a fairly major backlash (though worth noting that episode five is where most of that backlash is aimed). I'll go into a few key points below, but first I want to acknowledge that I'm definitely coming at the finale of GoT from a slightly different perspective, and I think that fact has helped. You see, I stopped watching the show back in season five! Due to a number of reasons, it became quite hard to stay up to date, so I just stopped.

To be clear, I never thought the show was bad; far from it, I've always thoroughly enjoyed both the TV series and the books. Regardless, I took an almost six year hiatus, so when season eight began (and the spoilers started flying again) I figured I needed to do a bit of catch-up. Thanks to NowTV's free week-long trial and the weirdly condensed number of bank holidays we've had in 2019, we blasted through the fifth, sixth and seventh season in just over five days, and even made it to episode three of season eight before the "free" part of the trial expired. We managed to catch up on the next two episodes at my parents, making episode five (the penultimate one) the first time in a long while that I've seen Game of Thrones (almost) live, a situation we luckily managed to replicate with the finale. However, that means I haven't been eagerly drooling over teasers or leaked footage in the run up to the final season, instead just jumping directly into it from the earlier seasons, ones that still had "from the book" plot lines. I think that binge has made for a much more consistent and enjoyable experience, which bodes well for future fans who will undoubtedly watch the show end-to-end.

So, with all that said, did I feel that season eight is really all that much worse than the three seasons directly before it? Nope, not at all. The story has become a little more abrupt since the show left the books in the dust, but there's plenty of good reasons for that. There's the whole plotters vs pantsers debate, which impacts all fictional story telling but Game of Thrones possibly disproportionately, due to having an author who is more pantser than possibly any other author in living memory. And then there's the worries of a network who has already seen how a cult phenomenon can become a never-ending joke due to being strung out *cough* Lost *cough*. Back in season five or six, the writers of GoT made a conscious decision to keep the show's length roughly the same as the books, and locked in a contract for eight seasons. Could HBO have pushed that out to nine or ten? Absolutely, but viewer fatigue was already showing, the show has a phenomenal running cost, and the die-hard fans were pushing for them to wrap things up. The result is that, having spent six seasons creating this incredibly sprawling plot line with a gigantic cast of characters, they suddenly had to start reigning everything in; this was always going to feel at odds with the nature of Game of Thrones, something GRRM has stated he's struggling with as well (which is why The Winds of Winter is taking so damn long to write).

[I just want to make it clear that from here down there will be active spoilers for all seasons of Game of Thrones - you have been warned!]

But you can't hold that against them. They were in a "rock and a hard place" situation, where I genuinely don't think they could have reached an ending that worked from a plot perspective and kept all the fans happy. Honestly, what they ended up with was incredibly close, but had to break at least a few fan-favourite theories. Chief amongst those is that anyone you cared about could have ended up on the Iron Throne. The whole point of A Song of Ice and Fire (the books the show is based on) is to deliberately screw with and invert standard fantasy tropes. That's why Ned Stark, the clearly heroic every-man, was killed gruesomely in the first book; it's why his heir and similarly heroic (plus now vengeful) son was massacred at a wedding later on. The "good guys" have to lose; the "villains" turn out to have a point; magic isn't a solve-all that heals all wounds; people are actually people, and don't just fall in line for the "one true king (or queen)" with applause; destiny doesn't exist. These are central messages to the series, so guess what? Daeny, Jon, even Tyrion, they all had to fall in the end. And that's what we've been given.

That isn't to say that the show-runners managed to perfectly tie everything together. I was a little disappointed that we never got to learn why the Night King was so hell-bent on the destruction of all living things, and feel that we could have had a brief conversation between him and Bran in the Godswood at Winterfell which would have gone some way to alleviating that. It could even have played into a stalling tactic to allow Arya enough time to reach them, which would have given Bran a little more direct impact on the plot and made his ultimate fate seem slightly more earned.

Similarly, having spent so long learning about the Red Priests, whose god is clearly real enough to be able to cheat death/the Many Faced God, and conjure up all manner of magic, we never really got any closure on the whole Prince who was Promised. Both Stannis and Jon were good fits for the prophecy, yet both ultimately failed; Arya, however, a servant of the supposed devil in this equation, was ultimately victorious. Again, I think just a little more time during the Battle of Winterfell is what we needed (I get that this was already extremely long, but perhaps it should have been two hours?). Have Arya die in the Hound's arms, just as they make it to the main hall in Winterfell and the dead begin closing in (it would have been a good moment for Clegane as well). Then, just as he readies himself for death too, have the Red Priestess save them with fire magic and bring Arya back to life, channelling the last of her power and killing herself to do so. The rest continues exactly as it was, only with one extra line where the Red Priestess tells Arya that third time's the charm, and she is the true Princess that was Promised (a nice callback to the conversation with Daenarys in fact) and needs to kill the blue eyes. Arya becomes the one person to serve both sides of that coin, both Death and Life, and in doing so fulfils the prophecy. To me, that would have been a much neater close to all of those arcs, including the stuff on Bravos, than what we got.

But those are my two big wishes for the books to "right". There are a few other, smaller things which I think GRRM will probably do, such as build up the new Prince of Dorne as an actual character, possibly even making him an ally of Jon's in the final siege and meaning that, during the first election on Westeros, at least one person brings up the fact that Jon would be the rightful heir under the old system (and had a greater claim than Daeny did, making his murder that of right rather than rebellion). I still don't want Jon to take on that title; as I say, he's too "good" of a character, and needs to end up north of the Wall in my mind to make his own journey complete.

I think there's also still room for some of the other fan theories, such as that Tyrion is actually a half-Targaryen himself, or that Jaime actually repents and stays in the North (though I do doubt that one and kind of feel it's fitting that he dies with Cersei)[3]. There's also a lot more room in the books to truly map out Daeny's descent into madness, and I feel like part of that will be finding out that Meereen has been overthrown by slavers and Dario is dead; I think we'll see her come to realise that giving even the smallest inch means long-term failure, helping drive her decisions at Kings Landing. That said (just quickly) I also don't think the fuss about her arc in season eight is warranted; she's clearly been driven by destiny and "divine right" for her entire life; she's committed war crimes and atrocities at every turn; she routinely ignores reason for some twisted sense of personal morality which she holds above all other opinions. She's a childish product of a cult that grew up around her, brainwashed by the stories she has been fed since first leaving Westeros. She inspires loyalty and love, but those aren't enough to lead, so she cannot ever be a good Queen. Most importantly, like all great revolutionaries, she has a great, lofty vision of a better world, but no real understanding of how it would function or what it requires. In short, she was always doomed to failure, and it is right that it was love that ultimately killed her; that's arguably a better death than a butcher of thousands ever deserves.

Oh, and then there are the bits that the show has done right. I love that we're left with a Westeros that's only marginally better than the one we started with. Yes, a great evil in the Night King has been permanently vanquished, but at the start of the story almost no one believed that he was even real. Otherwise, we've just reset the ruling elite, with only some of the more minor houses still fully intact, and the rest under new management (some of which are low born, just like it would have been - as Bron rightly points out - at the start of the Seven Kingdoms). I like that Sam tried to enact democracy and got shouted down, but that it gave Tyrion just enough to tweak the formula in that direction; that's how true societal revolutions are won, through incremental change, not overnight shifts, and it's nice to see a fantasy (or even just a fiction) recognise that. I love that the small council is now made up of representatives from each of the factions (Sam for Jon, Brienne for Renly, Tyrion for Daenarys, Davos for Stannis, Bron for Cersei, Bran for the Starks) and that the best person to rule is now on the throne. I love that the last dragon destroyed the Iron Throne; I love that Gendry was lifted up to be a Lord. I love that Tyrion has been written out of his own history whilst he's still living it.

Above all else, I love that a whole heap of fantasy tropes were thrown out of the window. The only knight still drawing breath? A woman. The heroes of the story? A dwarf and a cripple. Divine right? Burnt and banished. Dragons? Defeated. Revolution? Bloody and futile. I like that no one was truly victorious, that no religion turned out to be perfectly true, but best of all, I like that it all ended up being largely pointless. All of these prophecies, existential threats, armies, schemes, and all to just basically end up back where they started, only with a lot of death in between. That feels much more real than a Star Wars or a Lord of the Rings, and that feels right.

Footnotes