The one thing that I always loved Game of Thrones, especially the books, is the extent to which it had a clear-eyed and deeply cynical view of power.
The key players in Westeros always knew the source of their strength. The Lannisters were rich and paid their debts. The Starks were loyal and held the north. Even Walder Frey ruthlessly exploited holding a key river crossing.
The “game” then was a ruthless grind as power collided, captured brilliantly by the clockwork and gears in the opening credits.
Quests for power in Game of Thrones ended, at best, with victories that were brutal, pyrrhic, and temporary. Being clever, brave, or honest, would only get you so far. What mattered more was the underlying strength you could summon. Your soldiers, your money, your spies.
This meant it was always going to be difficult to create a satisfying conclusion.
In search of catharsis
I think I was in the minority in how I reacted this season, maybe because I’ve also read the books, but also I don’t envy whatsoever the challenge undertaken by the showrunners Benioff and Weiss and think they did the best that could be expected with a really tricky hand.
We live in a culture conditioned to experience cathartic moments of violence in our storytelling. The hero blows up the Death Star. The heroine kills the bad guy. Then everyone celebrates and everything is just fine (unless there’s a need for sequels).
We like to believe in a neat and tidy world where violence, when undertaken by the good guys, is orderly, righteous, and final.
At its best, Game of Thrones exposes that lie for the fiction that it is. Violence in the real world is never cathartic and final. It’s brutal, messy, and has lasting consequences. There aren’t clear winners.
We started reading/watching Game of Thrones in the first place because it was a different from those conventional stories and more like the real world. The “hero” might get beheaded at any moment. Being clever might keep a character alive, but it can only get you so far.
That’s why I was surprised that everyone was so surprised that Daenerys sacked Kings Landing, which I thought was the best moment of the season and true to the books. In my view, she no longer had a choice. She didn’t have the people’s loyalty, she no longer had the best claim to the throne, and her armies were largely decimated. All she really had was a dragon and the ability to inspire fear. So she played the hand she was dealt.
But by the end of the show, the showrunners were trapped under the weight of a fanbase that wanted a satisfying conclusion to those eight years of brutality. A happy end for their favorite characters. A satisfying bookend to Ned Stark’s beheading and the Red Wedding that made that trauma “worth it.”
Benioff and Weiss were caught between Game of Thrones’ realistic view of power and a society that craves cathartic violence in our storytelling.
One of the more astute analyses of the show I’ve read came from Scientific American, which framed the challenge as the collision of sociological storytelling (showing people acting based on constraints imposed by their incentive structures, much like The Wire), and psychological storytelling (more deeply tied to individuals, much like most every other story).
In the final episode, Game of Thrones very self-consciously opted for a compromise that left few happy, even writing that into the dialogue. Echoing Calvin and Hobbes, Tyrion says “No one is very happy, which means it’s a good compromise.”
Or, as Calvin more precisely fumes, “A good compromise leaves everyone mad.”
What I would have done
Sure, I have my gripes with the show.
I wish there had been more lingering questions around Tyrion’s loyalty and more of a sense that he was playing multiple angles (as many have complained, the cleverest man in Westeros turned into the most foolish). The quest to capture a White Walker to “prove” their existence to Cersei was moronic, forcing an overly compressed final season. And the reflexive stooping to the lowest common denominator with cheap nudity, rape, and violence was insulting.
But I also suspect that if Benioff and Weiss had followed my council they would have ended up with a finale that might have pleased even fewer. I would have ended it with Daenerys atop the throne, Jon Snow exiled to the wall, and the new Westeros House of Lords banding together to amass their armies to try to stop her.
You know, just like how everything started after the death of Robert Baratheon.
What do you think about the finale? What would you have done differently if you were in charge?
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JOHN T. SHEA says
What is this Game of Thrones that you speak of?
Michelle Miller says
I think you just about captured my feelings. Thank you. I’ve been beyond frustrated. The season was too short. They tried to cram too much in to six episodes. I think it would have been more believable for many if they would have developed Daenerys’s eventual madness over a longer time. However, I was not really surprised by her turn. There was evidence along the way, and following in her father’s footsteps, when she started to feel unloved and unfollowed by many, she lost it. I’ve thought about what you said, and I think I agree. It would have been a lot less anticlimactic if they would have ended with “Daenerys atop the throne, Jon Snow exiled to the wall, and the new Westeros House of Lords banding together to amass their armies to try to stop her,” although I really didn’t want Jon back at the wall.
I’ve only read the first two books. I absolutely loved them, probably more than the show. I’m getting ready to start A Storm of Swords next month. My biggest worry is this…I’ve heard Martin quoted in an interview, saying, “I don’t think Dan and Dave’s ending is gonna be that different from my ending because of the conversations we– we did have.” Please, no! It’s obvious that Martin is a much better story teller than Benioff and Weiss. So why does the book series have to end the same? What would be the point of even writing them? I mean, yeah, for those who never watched the show, only read the books. For those of us who plan/planned to read the books all along, what a damn letdown it will be to get that self same ending. I really hope Martin thinks it through. I think your proposed ending would be far more acceptable than what we ended up with last night.
So I agree with you that the broad strokes of where the show chose to take its story were appropriate to the themes and tone of Game of Thrones. I always suspected that Dany would become the villain and Cerci would die and the Night King would be defeated by someone unexpected. My issue with this season (and one that I think falls squarely at the showrunners’ feet) was how rushed and jumbled it all was. The Long Night lasting one night? The scorpions killing one dragon effortlessly but failing to kill Drogon even though they’re all pointed at him? Dany’s flip-switch moment of “madness” which she later explains as a logical choice? I would have been on board with all the decisions themselves, but the sloppy way they’re kind of thrown out at the audience and we’re expected to just buy it felt like an insult to the watchers who had picked apart every tiny detail of the show looking for hints that ended up meaning nothing (hello prophecies?).
Now, I totally agree that D&D were given the impossible task of ending a show loved by millions in a way that was reasonably satisfying to at least SOME of them. However, the part that I find totally unforgivable is that they were offered 2 full seasons by HBO (in fact, they were offered more than that, as HBO didn’t want to lose its biggest cash cow and GRRM said it would take at least 10 seasons to properly tell his story). But they made the decision to truncate seasons 7 and 8 for reasons that seem suspiciously related to their role in the next Star Wars trilogy. That’s just wrong. If they were tired of the show (which seems to be a consensus from insiders at HBO) they should have passed it on to someone who wasn’t. Or brought in new eyes to help them stay true to the story while they started working on other things. Or SOMETHING. But instead we got this chaotic and illogical finish, where favorite characters either become morons (I’m looking at you Tyrion) or renege on 7 seasons of development for no apparent reason (Jaime) or become major players despite being the most boring/undeveloped character in the show (Bran)….
Haha, I’ll stop. If you can’t tell, I have a lot of feelings about this show’s ending, and most of them aren’t positive. And I think for me the WORST part was the loss of potential. If they’d just stuck with their own rules and pacing, then all of these twists could have been amazing! If given space to breathe, things like Dany’s slide into madness (or cruelty) and the Night King’s existential threat and Bran’s weirdo powers could have been fascinating. I WANTED them to be fascinating. I was 100% ready to buy into all of it at the beginning. But then, time and time again, something would happen and I would be like “that’s not right” or “why did they do that” or “hey, shouldn’t that trip have taken months” to the point where, by the final episode, I was numb and didn’t care what happened to the characters who (to me) had become mere plot-puppets in a world pretzled into shape around them. I went into the final episode with clinical curiosity rather than real heart, just wanting it to be over. Which is a terrible way to say goodbye to a show I’ve loved for so many years.
I apologize if that’s melodramatic, but we’re storytellers here and hopefully appreciate more than most what good characters and a well-built world can mean to someone. So yes, I’m heartbroken and disappointed by this ending, not because I disagree with the choices or wanted a happily-ever-after, but because it took something that could have been glorious and fumbled at the finish. Alas.
Nathan Bransford says
I think these are all fair thoughts! I can imagine that after 8 years lots of the key players were probably ready to move on to the next thing, and I’d guess that extended beyond Benioff and Weiss (though that’s just speculation).
But just from a narrative perspective, I have to wonder if they might have had more room for the twists and turns of the final season without that whole quest up north to kidnap a White Walker. I’m still pretty confused what it accomplished apart from bringing some of the characters together and turning one of the dragons into a zombie…
Michelle Miller says
I totally agree with pretty much everything you said. I had no idea they were offered two full seasons, or more! That is insane! That makes me even more mad.
What you said here, exactly how I feel…”So yes, I’m heartbroken and disappointed by this ending, not because I disagree with the choices or wanted a happily-ever-after, but because it took something that could have been glorious and fumbled at the finish. Alas.”
I hope they don’t screw up Star Wars. lol
Lenore Gay says
The night after seeing the final episode I wrote on another site that the ending was what I hoped for, but didn’t think possible. I agree that the season was too rushed and some characters were undeveloped. Bran, for instance, needed more attention. His terrible fall opened the story, telling us a lot about the incestuous twins from the beginning, telling us this was a brutal era.
At the ending I was pleased because neither Therion nor Bran wanted to be king or the hand. Therion was a smart man, a cunning man who survived despite his size. He dealt well with people He was the best person to become the Hand of the King and lead a council which was what Westeros needed rather than more battles.
As for Dany, her mental decline began many seasons ago. The family’s history, then the death of her brother, for instance? I watched her face. What I saw through the seasons was her controlled rage. When near the end she learned about Jon’s heritage, she destroyed King’s Landing because she could. I worried she’d kill Jon.
When I heard Jon would be sent back to the wall I figured he’d end up with his friends in the north, the place he loved. Arya’s decision to explore fit her perfectly. Sansa rightly became the Queen of the North. I wished all of them well, too.