Back in 2011, a little fantasy show hit our television screen. Chronicling the tumultuous history of a vast continent, and the nobility warring to gain control of it. And the show was a ground-breaking and universal success – well, not really.
The show wouldn’t truly hit that height of success until the fourth season, but it still proved to be popular even in its earliest years. And in that time the show has delivered us nothing but quality story-telling, direction and acting. For four years anyway. Yes, I think it’s safe to say now that the show really began to lose its way around season five – when the showrunners no longer had the source material to adapt from. From season five onwards the show became a shell of what it had once been – now the characters were unintelligent, storylines didn’t pay off and shock value became the show’s magic key to a good reception. And although the show still remained watchable, it’s downfall eventually accumulated in the final season, which failed to live up to any expectation the fanbase may have had.
The purpose of this post is to deconstruct and examine certain elements of the show’s final season, to truly define where the show went wrong. I plan to focus on various aspects of the season, relating them to their original introductions in the show’s first season, basically examining how far the show has come since its initial golden age. This is going to be a long and exhausting process, but I’m prepared to do it. So let’s take a deep dive into how this show went from global blockbuster to the most cringe-worthy thing on television.
The White Walkers
When planning out this post, I knew that this subject had to be addressed first, because not only were the White Walkers one of the most significant elements of the show, they were also our first glimpse at the world of Ice and Fire. Introduced in the very first scene of the show’s first ever episode, the White Walkers loom over every season as peripheral boogeymen, promising a pay-off that sadly never came true. And here’s where we have the first primary issue of season eight – there are no fulfilments to the promises made.
In cinematic language, there is a process called set-up and pay off. In the most simplest of terms, when a form of visual media introduces something into the narrative, it will usually have some sort of pay off later. This set up can be anything from a new character to the most mundane of objects, but as long as it has a payoff, it doesn’t truly matter what it is.
For example, in the very first episode of the show, we are introduced to the concept that the dead can be arisen by some kind of magical force. That is the initial set-up. And over eight seasons we are given more and more set-ups to work from, such as the Night King, his importance to the undead army and his binary relationship with Jon Snow.
And after all this, we would expect there to be some kind of pay off. Something that we expected to come in the form of the final season’s third episode ‘The Long Night’. But it didn’t. In fact, we got almost no pay-off at all for nearly a decade of set-up.
Instead we were given an hour and half to watch the White Walkers storm Winterfell, resurrect their fallen dead and then be immediately defeated by a single character and a Valyrian steel dagger. What had been promised to be the most powerful and dangerous force in this world was defeated in a single night, with very little casualties and very little aftermath. And there isn’t really anything fundamentally wrong with Arya being the one to kill the Night King, but it does go up in the face of the fans who had actually been paying attention to the show’s build up. In a perfect world where the writers of this show didn’t have to rely on subversion for its excitement and shock, Jon would have been the one to defeat the Night King, because that is what was promised.
From almost the beginning of the show, Jon has been the primary force of good trying to battle the White Walkers and their mission for evil. And after seasons of lingering shots of Jon and the Night King staring at each other with murderous intent, you would think he would be the one to deliver the final blow. But no, he’s not.
And there isn’t really a decent explanation for this other than the writers didn’t want to fall into the fantasy trap of there being a single chosen one destined to save the world, which is fine. But in this case they only switched that role to a different character, now Arya is the chosen one, which truly doesn’t make sense with the show’s mythos and theme. To make a point of there being no chosen one, the Night King should have been defeated by a random extra, someone of little importance or value. But the show doesn’t do that because it goes too far in terms of subversion, so instead they made it Arya for a quick and cheap thrill.
Even Daenerys defeating the Night King would have made more sense because it would have fit with the show’s general aesthetic of ice and fire. But Dany’s uselessness is something that will be delved into later in this post.
Overall the White Walkers can be summarised as a promise, one that was never fulfilled, one that was never going to be fulfilled. It’s hard to believe that one of the primary driving forces of the show’s overall narrative was concluded in a single episode, without any consequence or repercussion. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth, as if the White Walkers were almost entirely pointless, which it seems they actually were. As a primary piece in this show’s unique mythos, you would think they would serve more of a purpose than to interrupt our characters for a single episode, and yet that’s all they did. And that’s all they will be known for doing.
In season one, Dany was a fragile, innocent maiden made to marry a tribal warlord at the behest of her abusive brother! However, she completely broke that façade, discovering love among the Dothraki people, and eventually gaining the power to birth her own trio of dragons from petrified stone. In one season, Dany grows into a fiery force – the literal Mother of Dragons.
And we continue to see her grow, becoming a force to be reckoned with. For many she was the obvious choice to take the Iron Throne. Although her claim to the throne was based on traditional practice, she also wanted to ‘break the wheel’, to change the known world and dismantle the patriarchal practices that shaped her society.
So I was of course ecstatic when our Khaleesi finally embarked for Westeros, promising to take the Iron Throne by fire and force. And then, she didn’t do this. In fact, it seems that the writers completely turned against Dany as a character, making her into a useless and poor copy of who she once was.
In seven seasons of television, Dany has gained three dragons, a horde of Dothraki, the Unsullied and the support of several Westerosi houses. And yet, the minute she steps foot on the beaches of Dragonstone, she does very little of consequence. At the beginning of the show, Dragons are said to be ‘fire made flesh’, as in unlimited power. And yet Dany loses two of her dragons within only, what?, six episodes of television. The battle with the undead also depletes her armies and her resources. And even though she is still able to claim King’s Landing for a short time, it comes at the price of losing her best friend, and even going insane and choosing to obliterate the city’s entire population.
Now some have argued that Dany’s descent into madness was always hinted at throughout the show, which I do not agree with. Yes, Dany has done some horrible things to people throughout the show’s eight seasons, but they were always justified in some way. When she burned the merchant who sold her the Unsullied, she did it because she was disgusted by the practices he implemented to form the Unsullied. When she commanded the deaths and crucifixions of the slave merchants, she did it again because she saw their practices as being part of the symbolic wheel she wishes to break. Dany was a character who cared about the plight of slaves, helping to free them from their captivity, becoming the literal ‘Break of Chains’. This compassion for the weak and innocent can again be seen in the show’s fourth season, where Dany willingly locks her own dragons away when she learns that they have slain small children.
This is not a woman who, upon a few failures, chooses to destroy an entire city, killing thousands. This is a different character, a Daenerys that the show tries to argue has always existed within its narrative walls, even though many of us can see through the lies and fiction. Again, in a similar fashion to Arya killing the Night King, this descent is not a bad thing. But it suffers because the writers never try to make the shift organic and believable. As a supporter and fan of the character, watching her take such a sudden downfall was truly a heart-breaking experience. And her final moments on the show will go down in history as some of the most disappointing in the show’s run.
Since the show first began, it has always relied on the subversion of the audiences expectations to drive the narrative forward. For example, in the first season our primary POV character is Ned Stark, a righteous and noble man who acts as the show’s principal protagonist. Many believed that this man would be the one to unite the noble families, that he would be the one to win the game of thrones and claim King’s Landing in the name of good. And yet, he doesn’t. In fact, Ned is executed for treason before the first season even finishes.
This is the first example of the show subverting what the audience naturally expects from the functions of the fantasy genre. This eventually accumulates in The Red Wedding, which still remains to be one of the best moments that the show has ever produced. And even though it cannot be discredited, it was this moment that arguably made subversion into this show’s bread and butter. Because from this point onwards, the writers begin to use subversion not as a narrative drive but merely for shock value, leading to some of the more confusing moments in the show.
Now some of these moments were amazing to watch and definitely delivered on the drama, such as Cersei’s blowing up of the Sept, which truly was the best shock moment the show delivered beyond season four – that the writers came up with themselves anyway. But from then on, we this the use of subversion as a shock tactic being taken to even more confusing and pointless heights. Such as Arya killing the Night King, which again was done simply to surprise the audience and not to drive forward the narrative. The moral of the lesson here is that you should never give up the narrative in favour of stuff that the audience may deem cool or unexpected, because it leads to poor storytelling with no build-up or pay-off.
Since the show’s final episode, the internet has been alive with memes and trending images dispelling how the showrunners completely forgot about the key plot points they introduced into the story. And although these memes can be hilarious, they also speak of a terrible and tragic truth. That the showrunners truly didn’t know what they were doing with this final season. The most primary example of this being the final episode, which only made more evident their lack of interest and knowledge of where the show should finish. The finale gave us some head-scratching moments, such as the melting of the Iron Throne and Bran’s eventual crowning as the King of Westeros. Moments that had no build-up, moments that seemingly promised a very different ending to the one that we got.
As of the writing of this post there still has been very little word on whether George R.R. Martin is any closer to finishing the sixth instalment in the original book series, but I’m sure many fans are waiting to see if the books will also take this sudden turn. And I could write so much more than I already have on the subject of Game of Thrones and its disaster of a final season. I could discuss Cersei’s transition into a Marvel villain, I could talk about Arya giving up her main character arc, I could even talk about Lyanna Mormont and her pointless importance. But for now, I’m going to take a break from thinking about this show. Because I’m tired and I think we all need time to now move on. Well, until the spin-off airs anyway.