Written by David Benioff & D. B. Weiss
Spoilers ahead... but you've already seen it anyway so who cares?
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You know those TV specials or TV films that come out a decade or so after the original series (or film) had first aired? You know the ones: they’ll have almost all the original cast and it’ll be an anniversary reunion or a comic relief thingy or something like that. Love Actually did one, Heroes, Firefly; half of the American sitcoms from the mid-century have a reunion of sorts some time down the line. Yeah, you know the ones. They never quite feel the same as the original, do they? Even if all the old writers and directors are back, their hearts will be in different places, they’ll have moved on, they won’t be able to bring back the feel that drew everybody to the show in the first place. Watching the finale of Game of Thrones was like watching one of those shows, and it is all the worse for it.
The characters have become odd caricatures of themselves, whittled down to half-remembered archetypal tropes. Daenerys is ruthless and proud, Arya is a super-human assassin, Varys is scheming, Bronn likes whores and money, but everything else the show built them up to be had been left behind. Plot arcs have been bent and broken to fit the limited screen-time as if they were luggage being forced into the boot of a car.
Actions in previous seasons have occurred organically, as direct consequence to all the actions before it. It was moment to moment storytelling akin to a game of chess that brought with it a wonderful sense of tension and momentum. Unfortunately, with Martin’s direction gone, Benioff and Weiss either don’t know how to play chess or are too bored to give it their proper attention. They know snakes-and-ladders however… Everyone likes snakes-and-ladders! It’s a game about going straight to the end, it’s not particularly complicated and its full of easy shortcuts.
Now I’m all for creatives to spend their energy however they want to. If George R. R. Martin didn’t want to write another Ice and Fire book, I’d be saddened, but in the end, it would be his decision. The showrunners turned down the option to make more seasons of Game of Thrones which is fair enough, but it does mean the ending feels unmotivated and unsatisfying. The ideal solution for me would have been to pass the torch to those more enthusiastic rather than rush it and have it over with.
As far as the main beats go, I quite like where the show went, and I think it follows closely what Martin may have had in mind. I think it was always going to be the case that Daenerys torched King’s Landing, that she would return to the capital and bring the same horror that first forced her to leave; it was always the case that Bran would be king, that the lowliest character who didn’t even have bodily autonomy would grow into the most powerful; and it was always the case that the wheel would be broken, and democracy would be formed amongst the lords of Westeros in the wake of the war. I can see the themes of the story leading in that direction; it’s the way they led us there that left a hollow feeling.
In another version of the story Deanery’s wreaking dragonfire on the people of King’s Landing would have been horrific yet feel completely narratively (if not morally) justified. Imagine if they had postponed Rhaegal’s death for this climactic battle, that shortly after the bells had rang and the people surrendered Dany would see her child fall to a bolt fired from the centre of the city by Euron or another soldier who did not want to stop. The rage stirred by that one act could have been the action that pushed her over the edge and thus enact her retribution on the city. Or, maybe there were no bells or surrender at all, and Dany kept up the assault because the soldiers would rather die than bow to her. Maybe her people, wounded and weary were losing dreadfully, and Dany needed to step in so that the battle could be ended as swiftly as possible. Either way, the biggest sin in this action in the show was that she didn’t feel remorse.
Throughout the series she has sworn not to go the same way as her father, that she was going to be just and loved. Although she has never been fond of compromise, (she disliked the agreements she made with the Meereenese, and that arc ended with her throwing compromise to the wind) she was always sympathetic to the small people. If she had shown slight regret or doubt, even if she had decided herself to be in the right at the end, it would have maybe felt just a little more right.
It’s a shame, in every aspect aside from story the last two episodes were excellent. The cinematography was as good as any feature film (something that five or six years ago would have been unheard of), the effects, costumes and score were all great, the ending shots were fun. The only bit that seemed cinematically over the top was the much-awaited fan-pleasing ‘Clegane-Bowl’ which is something I already thought was a bit too much even in concept. The Hound’s arc should have ended with him leaving it all behind and retiring, as he did halfway through. If he must fight his brother, he could have at least used fire as a weapon showing some sort of poetic retribution as well as growth in character. Episode five, with the edition of another season before it, could be completely unchanged and at the same time far better. The characters were simply not at the right stage in their development for this episode to work.
But I know what you’re thinking: Benioff and Weiss are writing veterans with almost thirty years of screenplay writing experience between them, whereas you are an untrained amateur who has written a meagre handful of short stories over the past half year and no formal training. You have in no way near the level of experience that they have when it comes to closing up a narrative, let alone one as large and sprawling as Game of Thrones, a story so immense that has been in production since before you could even put a full sentence to paper. Tell us how you would do it better. Well, I’m glad you asked.
First off, Arya and Bran need to use their powers in some way, else there would be no narrative reason for them to gain them. After Daenerys destroys Kings Landing, Arya, adding one last name to her list, not for revenge but for the good of the people, will take the visage of either Grey Worm, or Missandei and attempt to assassinate the new Queen. Jon will hear of this attempt, and, unable to talk her out of it, beat her to the punch, in much the same way as in the show, stabbing Dany in the ash covered ruins before the Iron Throne. I mean, Arya riding upon an ashen white horse by Dany’s making is very much setting her up to be an embodiment of death, at least that’s what I thought it was.
Then, Bran’s powers should come into use during the Battle of the Long Night against the Night King by either warging into the undead Viserion, the nearby wights or, by locking the Night King into an abstract battle of the minds bouncing back and forth through their history while a crippled and dying Theon (Yes, Theon) crawls up behind and finishes him with the dragonglass dagger.
Going back to the Wall to help the Wildlings should have been Jon’s suggestion, as should have democracy (with some inspiration for it from Tyrion). They respect his wishes as he is technically the rightful King (a fact that for some reason isn’t that important to the last season’s plot beyond creating friction between Dany and Jon. It was the biggest twist reveal of the entire show, the lie of Jon’s parentage is built into the very core of the whole story, why didn’t it come to anything!?) and Dany’s followers are satisfied so long as he doesn’t return south.
Also, Bronn isn’t on the council. Bran's council were all there because they were recognisable, not because they made any sense to be there. And I do like him but Bronn really should have stayed in the castle he was given several seasons ago. He didn’t need to be brought back. Neither did Gendry, or Sandor... Whatever, I’m done now. Point is, there were multiple threads and set-ups that never led to anything significant while other ones were focused upon that shouldn’t have been. Indeed, no single unanswered question was acknowledged in the final season except ‘How does it end?’
Overall, I’m not as hurt as a lot of other people seem to be. I know the books will be different, and unlike most people on the internet I don’t believe George R. R. Martin will die within the hour of anyone mentioning him. He’ll finish Winds of Winter at the least, and if not, there’s enough material and demand that someone else would likely take the reigns and finish it as Christopher Tolkien did. A more satisfying end will come, in time. This version of it is over, that is all. And all things considered, they did a pretty good job of bringing one of the most sprawling and complicated book series to the TV. It’s a great achievement, a landmark in the cinematic art of storytelling, and it wouldn’t have happened without Benioff and Weiss. If their efficient storytelling that made it possible to bring to television in the first place, but when all needed to come to a close, it was also the show's downfall.
I give these episodes a 3/7 for being a disappointing end to a great televisual achievement, but the series as a whole gets a big’ol 6/7