Game of Thrones was a grounded fantasy. Sure, there were dragons, armies of the dead, a cult of death-worshiping, shape-shifting ninjas, naked redheaded witches, etc. But they were used abstemiously. Most of the show was character driven and about power politics.
Season Eight didn’t merely alienate the fanbase. It hit them hard. Fans seem to have reacted to this climactic season like watching their team lose the championship. Some of that is a little over-hyped; mere nit-picks spun by maddening epicycloid gears of social media, whipping up like-minded discontent into a tsunami of froth. But this discontent is not unearned.
The show was always enjoyable to watch. It was endless spectacle with mostly solid story telling. But there were always flaws.
:::| Nits? Watch Me Pick Away :::
I’d agree with the general observation that the show was nearly perfect for at least the first four seasons. I’d say that the show was only consistently logical through season two. Complaints that the season went off track in terms of logic this last year or two are generous. I’ll list some longstanding nitpicks of mine with the caveat that these are minor. They bother me if I think too much, but I can regularly choose to ignore them for the sake of spectacle.
The Ironborn may be adamant about stealing things from others, but it does present a worldbuilding problem. They are a small island with a massive navy. If they “do not sow” crops, they are going to have a terrible time finding enough linen and hemp to make all the sails and rope they would need. Building ships as we saw requires not just sowing, but also significant sewing. Especially when Euron spontaneously suggests building a fleet of a thousand ships.
The armies of the Unsullied or Golden Company are either marching or standing at attention. Watching the Unsullied march off into the desert for the first time, my initial observation was that none of them had any kind of infantryman’s pack with gear. Actual pre-industrial armies and their gear are an interesting subject in themselves. I didn’t see any water or sleeping rolls, let alone any supply wagons.
Part of enjoying the show is to just roll with all these. I can pretend that there are massive baggage wagons with water skins and sleeping rolls and medical kits which are just off screen. All the intense labor required in providing these armies which regularly get slaughtered with their weapons, armor, food, clothing, burial, etc., must also be going on behind the scenes. It must also be mentioned that labor intensity was the way of life in Dark Age and Medieval Age, and wars were costly things which required generations not just to properly supply, but often to recover from in their aftermath.
The feckless way in which armies and navies all are supplied is part of the ambience of the show. The matter-of-fact ease with which this is done precisely evokes a tabletop game. Sometimes the characters stand stock still like the carved mini-figs from the incense-imbued gaming store in the mall which probably inspired their creation. That’s just how the show was.
The use of magic, intermittent though it was, always presented a lot of problems. This was a particularly sticking bit with how the dead were raised. Were the wights moved like marionettes by the Others/Walkers? Wights seemed to have some kind of agency, but not related to the living person they once were. Was it some kind of demon working within them like the myths of revenants or vampires? Even mechanically, it doesn’t make sense how corpses with decayed or absent muscle and sinew can even move. The more you think about it, the more it is just something you have to shrug at and move on.
Of course, going into Season Eight, the cumulative plotholes and nit-picks were already piled up like so many wights who’ve thrown themselves over a cliff. Trying to bring a resolution to the show meant an inevitable clash of problems previously relegated to hand waving away.
We saw realistic close-up sword-and shield fighting. But then we also saw a shirtless Ramsey standing feet from Ironborn raiding his castle and laughing maniacally. When of course a mere slip of a sword at that point could have easily ended his life. We saw cavalry charges which made no sense, and commanders on the field subjecting themselves to danger which would have meant losing instantly.
The show always gave and took away from realism in almost equal order.
:::| Plot vs Character + Acting = Spectacle |:::
I have not read George RR Martin’s books, although my interest in watching the series has prompted me to go back and explore much of the lore. There is naturally much in the volumes which is richer, deeper, and more consistent than the abbreviated version in the show.
I am personally fond of how he played with tropes in the fantasy genre. He includes actual extinct Earth species, such as direwolves, mammoths, wooly rhinos, etc., to correlate where fantasy authors use griffins or hummerhorns or other fantasy creatures. Dragons are depicted as if they were possibly real animals, with winged forearms, which give them an anatomy similar to that of bats, giving them an uncanny tangibility.
He hints at extinct species of humans, such as Australopithecus and Neanderthals, as being the near-human races in the background of the book, similar to ogres or goblins in Tolkien fantasy. Even Tyrion, the dwarf, suffers the indignity of what actual humans with such disabilities may suffer, playing against type.
Martin created an antithesis to the the typical morality within high fantasy. In real history, heroes are usually compromised by inevitable acts of butchery on their path to heroism. Nobody is entirely good, and even villains have humanity and shades of grey.
I’m most fond of the book version of Euron, who is a powerful warlock akin to a Sith lord, whereas in the show he’s a bit like a ridiculously camp lead singer of pirate-themed punk rock band.
I am not in a hurry to read the books because I am not a stickler that book versions of stories are the “purer” versions. As someone who has read nearly everything that Bernard Cornwell has written, I have to say that the Sharpe novels stick in my mind as much more engrossing sagas than the abbreviated movies made from them. However, the depiction of the main character by Sean Beane indelibly stamped that image of him in my mind. This is a credit to the art of making movies as well as acting itself. Actors can bring a character alive in a relatable way which is instantly palpable. Even those who prefer the books can enjoy in the verisimilitude of many of the great performances of the actors who bring the characters alive. And Game of Thrones has had so many great actors, I think the strongest reason it will endure, if at all, is how well the actors bring across the fullness of their characters. (Maybe not Euron, but they all can’t be winners.)
:::| So The Woman Demanding She Rule Everyone by Right of Her Birth Turned Out To Be Kind of Evil? Shock |:::
A lot of people were upset at Danaerys’ turn to the Dark Side. Writing-wise, I am more forgiving of this, seeing as I think it was foreshadowed as inevitable.
Why should we be on the side of the Targaryen(sp?) dynasty? Those who dip into the lore know that the founder of the dynasty conquered Westeros by using three dragons which burned everyone who defied them. They are rulers by right of conquest. This seemed to be unaddressed throughout the run, but I was pleased that, in the end, there was pushback against Targaryen entitlement.
On Dany’s first meeting with Jon Snow in Season Seven, she insisted that she ruled the Norf’ by right, in perpetuity, because her ancestor threatened to burn everyone and everything otherwise. After Dany burned the Tarleys in an obvious war crime, yes — even by Dark Age standards — I found myself literally thinking “huh, is she a villain? I think she’s a villain.”
This essay by Jennifer Wright pretty much sums it up, I think. Quoting:
In Season 2, she told the people of Qarth, “We will lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground! Turn us away, and we will burn you first.” In Season 3 she pledges to take what is hers “with fire and blood.” In Season 6, she implores the Dothraki to “kill my enemies in their iron suits and tear down their stone houses.” She also pledges “I will set their fleets afire. I will kill every last one of their soldiers and return their cities to the dirt. That’s my plan.”
Ramsey laughs. You thought this would end some other way? Have you been paying attention?
:::| Things Left Unsaid — When it Would Have Been Really Easy to Just Write Someone Saying Them |:::
In the end, that ad-hoc choosing of a king with a Witan was weak. What I saw did not make sense to what I intuitively felt. Going completely outside the suspension of disbelief, I start to think: oh, it could have made sense. The Bran as the Three-Eyed-Raven otherwise had no real effect on the story until that moment. The powers he had were vague, and his sense of personal agency was also unclear. Was he a powerful warlock? We saw his powers thus far amount to not much of consequence other than playing Raven Simulator. He did not behave in an otherwise human manner which showed he was capable of real empathy, which is something, I presume, we’d want from a philosopher king.
The show ended with three Starks in control of Westeros; Bran on the throne of the Six Kingdoms, Sansa as Queen of the Norf’, and Jon… well, exiled to the Free Folk, who of course don’t give two shits what the rest of Westeros thinks. They’ll probably just make him their honorary king and oath or not, he’ll have all the ginger minge he can eat. (More power to him.)
I applaud the plot point of ending the tyranny of proximity to Targaryen blood. It doesn’t track that the whole continent would then be fine with being ruled by Starks. It flatly doesn’t make sense that if the Norf’ is an independent [queen]dom, then why would the rest of the kingdoms allow a foreign Stark mage as their king?
Nothing came of Jon’s Targaryen heritage. It could be said that it nudged Dany to the Dark Side that he was a rival to the throne. But thematically, she seemed to be heading there regardless. Since they ultimately decided on the king with a Witan, and ultimately put a son of Ned Stark on the throne anyway, Jon was still a rival to the throne regardless of his heritage. Jon’s identity was the single largest mystery of the show for several seasons. And it amounted to nothing in the end.
We needed more about Bran as the Three-Eyed Raven and why that was so particularly important. The Witan scene was the last chance for this. I will suggest a piece of dialogue, maybe which should have been delivered by Bran in the first or second episode, before the showdown with the Night King. Imagine this dialogue spoken to Tyrion, Sam, and perhaps Varys in Bran’s spooky monotone:
I have seen the Night King. I have seen his past, and I know the vast, cold emptiness of what passes for his mind. He is the sum of all the divisions among men. He is the sum of all our wars. The Three Eyed Raven has always been the keeper of this knowledge and stands between him and his ultimate victory. The living have purchased this knowledge for the price of all our dead.
I’m not saying this is good dialogue. But I am suggesting this, or something like it, would have set up a reason for why Bran would have the potential to be a wise king. It needed to be literally said out loud as dialogue. And said to Tyrion so that there was a solid reason for Tyrion suggesting Bran as their king. These sentences stated before both the Battle of Winterfell and the fall of King’s Landing could have set up the ending we got. Which is also a nice segue to the main problem I have with Season Eight…
:::| Setting Up a Big Boss as a Metaphor For Death and Dispatching Him Like the Enemy of the Week is Lame |:::
I have no real gripe with the execution of Episode Three, The Long Night. As spectacle, I enjoyed the Hell out of it. Sure, some characters had plot armor. The tactics were jarring nonsense if you thought too hard. I didn’t have a problem with the plot point of Jon’s heroism being trammeled by a mob of zombies in his way, nor Arya’s sudden ninjitsu and rope-a-dope resolution.
However, I would only have liked some more threads connecting the story beats. Maybe having Jon conspire with Arya at some point in a previous episode, indicating that they had a tag-team plan of some kind, which we only get revealed at the end when Jon distracts the dragon so that Arya can sneak into the Godswood.
They also committed the cardinal sin of storytelling wherein those of us in the audience felt like we were smarter than the characters. Jon very clearly saw how the Night King raised the dead at the end of Hardhome. So there was no excuse that people could have thought hiding in the tombs would have been safe. C’mon, writers!
The metaphorical fight against death itself should have mattered more than it did to the series resolution. It was an analogy about the squabbles of the different lords of the realm, as Jon Snow literally said in Season Seven. The show has been laboring to tell us that from the start.
The best line in the episode is delivered by Sandor Clegane in a moment of despair.
“We can’t beat them! Can’t you see that…?! It’s fighting death! You can’t beat death!”
Our main characters needed to be changed utterly after going in and coming out of the experience. Fighting and triumphing over death is just too symbolically important to be as disconnected as it was from the rest of the plot.
We didn’t get any solid reason within the story for why Bran mattered as much as he did, nor what was at stake if he was killed. Nor did we get a sense of how his survival had even changed him, if it did at all. The story needed to show the thematic connections between defeating the White Walkers, the resolution of the Westerosi civil wars, and Bran’s eventual acceptance of kingship. The show just needed more dialogue to set up that our characters weren’t so dumb. That they had reason for behaving as they did. They failed to do this and left it to us to ponder the reasons why.
The show was always fantastic to watch. In the end, though, it ended on a field goal at the 20 yard line. And it wobbled.