Film TV Reviews

Coping with Inevitable Disappointment: The Game of Thrones Finale

My brother and I watched the Game of Thrones series finale together. There is much to be said about the episode. So, spoiler warning. However, you’re not getting the significance of my first sentence:

My brother and I – me being the youngest of three kids and him being the middle child – pretty much only watch two things together: any new Star Wars movie starring Mark Hamill and Game of Thrones. Otherwise, he’s too busy with life and other interests to care about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the latest Netflix series, Jordan Peele horror movies, or anything else I might be into at any given moment. I am a geek in the classical “loves sci-fi, superheroes, and fantasy” sense of the word; he’s barely even geek-adjacent, despite having grown up on the original Star Wars trilogy.

Game of Thrones, however, got its hooks in him. We started watching it together back in the second season. A lot in both of our lives has changed since then, enough that the final outcome of a silly little Lord of the Rings knock-off TV show should ultimately seem trivial compared to adult problems. However, whenever Game of Thrones returned to rings its bells we enjoyed the weekly escape. Our bonding experience with the show persevered.

That bond was built on a shared love for this show; it goes out with our shared hate of the show’s series finale. “Well that was disappointing” were my brother’s first words after the episode, followed later with an even more concise description: “worst finale ever.”

Lumberjack Dexter might beg to differ, but, yeah, Game of Thrones closed out its legacy-shattering final season with an epic dud of a series finale. As USA Today’s Kelly Lawler, whose passionate Benioff & Weiss critiques are usually spot-on, put it in her review:

When Game of Thrones premiered eight years ago, it was instantly clear that the series was something different. It was a story that broke the conventions of the fantasy genre, not one that was a slave to them. But that’s not the show that aired its final episode Sunday night. In the final episode, “The Iron Throne,” Thrones was unrecognizable. It was hacky; it was cliched. Every character left standing received a saccharine coda. It was all too simple, too clean, even with a major death and a surprise contender for the Iron Throne. Closure is one thing, but pandering is entirely another.

She’s right. The episode, written and directed by Benioff/Weiss, did feel off. From Tyrion in King’s Landing beginning to Jon leading the wildlings north of the wall ending, little of what made it to screen felt totally like Game of Thrones. For me, that meant I spent the majority of “The Iron Throne” waiting for the script to swerve away from all of its hacky traps:

  • Surely they won’t have Jon stab Dany while kissing her in the Throne Room? Totally did.
  • Surely Tyrion can’t be serious with this speech about Bran – less a character, more a blank-eyed plot device – deserving to be king because he has “the best story”? Holy shit, I think he actually means it
  • Well, surely the other heads of the houses won’t all agree to anoint Bran as the music swells and elevates this to seeming like a monumental moment even though it makes no sense? Nope, they totally did that too.

You can look at this and imagine an alternate universe where it all makes total sense. Go back and re-watch the pilot and you’ll notice that our introduction to the Starks is entirely centered on Ned and his sons teaching Bran how to be a just ruler. Jaime pushing Bran out of that tower is the inciting incident of the whole series. Think back to earlier in this season and you’ll newly appreciate the significance of the moment when Bran told Tyrion he didn’t want to rule Winterfell even though it was his right.

Maybe this kinda, sorta, not really, but let’s go with it works as an ending. However, like so much else from these final seasons it feels like Benioff and Weiss have simply written down the answer on a math test when the instructions clearly stated they were supposed to answer AND show their work. That last part has eluded them for quite some time now.

It’s helpful to remember the following: when David Benioff and D.B. Weiss first pitched Game of Thrones to HBO in 2006 they had never written a single second of TV nor had they even written a single word professionally. Their position of strength was mostly they knew the George R.R. Martin novels better than anyone. Like a lot of people over the past couple of decades, they aimed to seriously monetize their fandom.

“This story is unmarked by the unavoidable compromises that come with writing against a ticking production clock,” they promised in their 2006 HBO pitch document. “George has thought this story through with a focus and consistency of vision that is simply impossible in a normal television context. All of the suspense for [Thrones viewers], none of the uncertainty for us.”

Little could they have known that Martin would fail to keep up his end of the bargain. The show debuted the same year Martin published A Dance with Dragons. He has yet to deliver a follow-up novel. Without his words as a foundation, Benioff and Weiss have flailed about quite spectacularly, rushing to the finish line for unknown reasons (they requested the shortened final seasons, not HBO) and prioritizing spectacle and gotcha storytelling. That last part stands in direct contradiction to what they promised in their HBO pitch letter, to “open the eyes of millions of non-fans, who care more about depth, character, and storytelling than they do about mere spectacle.”

That is why we now look at all of their future endeavors with a seriously skeptical eye. As field marshals of the largest army ever assembled to make a TV show, their work is historic and unparalleled, an accomplishment which can never be denied. As storytellers, they have proven themselves to be good at adaptation but questionable at anything beyond that. It is highly notable that unlike every episode from the past seasons “The Iron Throne” did not come with a post-episode interview with Benioff and Weiss explaining their decisions. The intent was likely to let the work speak for itself; the effect, however, is of two people running away from the crime scene.

Because that’s what this feels like: a drive-by shooting of the greatness that once was Game of Thrones.

We’ve been here before. Sometimes beloved shows simply crap the bed in their final hour. Game of Thrones has plenty of company there. See also: Dexter, Battlestar Galactica Lost, How I Met Your Mother, the first-run of Roseanne, and Seinfeld. A common response to such disappointment is to feel like if the ending sucked then you’ve actually just wasted years of your life watching this show.

I don’t feel like that with Game of Thrones. Like I said, it’s one of the only TV shows my brother and I have ever bonded over. We watched it together just as so many other families and friends have over the years. It was a great show until it wasn’t, but I’ve always had a great time watching it and geeking out about it, both on the site and IRL with my brother. The journey was worth it even if the final destination didn’t live up to expectations.

Or maybe that’s just what I’m telling myself right now to keep from getting too worked up.

I don’t think so, though. The show went off the rails so long ago that I let go of any hope that Benioff & Weiss would ever right the ship. The finale confirmed as much, and as a result, I despair not for Dany or Jon but instead for the fans of the show. My story is not unique. So many around the world have bonded over Game of Thrones. We will never see the likes of it again.

Sure, AT&T will bleed as many spin-offs as possible out of HBO, and the finale surprisingly leaves the show open for a sequel series should that ever come to pass. However, you don’t replace a cultural behemoth with something which looks just like it. No, the next Game of Thrones – as in the next big show we all talk about it – will most likely look nothing like it and be something we’ll never see coming. I don’t know if I will bond with my brother over that show, but I know we watched Game of Thrones together for nearly a decade. No amount of disappointing storytelling can ever take that away.

RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS

  1. I give Bran’s reign as King three years, four tops. Only a matter of time before his constant vague proclamations, detached stare and frequent unexplained out-of-body wharging gets on everyone’s nerves. I don’t even think he’ll suffer a coup, more he’ll just roll off into the woods one day and never be seen again, leaving Tyrion to rule in his place.
  2. Bright side: Tyrion was the one character so many said they loved too much to watch die. Kill him and lose me as a viewer and all that. Hey, they didn’t kill him. So, that’s good, I guess.
  3. Potential spin-offs or sequel series storylines: The Unsullied protecting Naath, Arya exploring west of Westeros, Jon and the wildlings re-building society north of The Wall, Sansa as Queen of the North.

What’s your Game of Thrones story? Who has been your favorite person to watch the show with? Or favorite blogger/podcaster/entertainment journalist to turn to for post-show commentary? And what did you think of the finale? Let me know in the comments.

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18 comments

  1. Well, I was asking a few days ago whether or not I should read the books or see the series. Now I’m sure–I’ll get the books and read all those before watching a single episode, especially knowing that the last episode was such a dud and GRRM hasn’t even finished the book series yet. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/may/14/george-rr-martin-scorns-absurd-claims-hes-finished-writing-game-of-thrones
    Hmm…wonder what he would do to finish it…

  2. Probably what bothered me more than anything else was that the Unsullied took Jon prisoner. No way. That Unsullied leader would have slit his throat the instant he discovered what he did. Completely out of character to lock him up and wait for some unknown outsiders to choose his fate.

  3. QUESTION: What was Jon doing with the Free Folk at the end? Was he abandoning his assignment at Castle Black to go live beyond the wall?

  4. I don’t have a problem with Bran being King, but I sure didn’t like how it came about. And I would have liked them to show him in action so we could see why it was a good choice.

  5. I have a hard time believing all the other “leaders” of Westros went along with ANY king being selected — especially after they learned The North was allowed to be independent. They’d all be like, “Oh wait! We want to be independent, too!” Especially Dorn and the Iron whomevers.

    1. I mean, the city was demolished and the army decimated. How would a king expect to hold power? And on the flip side, what would a king in such circumstance have to offer the other kingdoms that would induce them to bend the knee?

  6. Another thing occurred to me. With the city in ruins, where was the money coming from for rebuilding ships and brothels? It was already established that Cercei was out of money and deep in debt to the Gold Coast, right? And it seems unlikely the Gold Coast would forgive the debt just because the ruler who made the deal is dead.

  7. Very disappointed. I can’t see Bran as king as he us too distant and vague. Even he said he wasn’t Bran anymore. Tyrion seemed to pluck that idea out the air. Bran just sat back and let it all pan out. Surely a working independence for each nation would have worked?

    1. I agree. I mean, the previous Three Eyed Raven wasn’t an emotionless zombie. Why did they choose to make Bran that way. So many ways they could have made Bran’s transformation interesting, intriguing, compelling.

  8. My Game of Thrones story ended before it really began. For context: I had a phase during which I read a lot of Fantasy. And I mean: A lot. The Song of Ice and Fire was one of the series I picked up back in the day. And in the beginning, I was fairly enthralled. But then I grow more and more uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable with the way the relationship between Daenerys and Drogo was portrayed (in: invited the reader to romanticise the whole thing, because Daenerys did it, but when I came to the point where Drogo died and Daenerys basically lost every but of status she supposedly “earned” beforehand, I suddenly realized what I just had bought into! We are talking here about the rape of a 12 year old girl which had already been abused by her older brother and the damned book romanticized it!!!). And that was just one example of a sexuality – specifically female sexuality – being portrayed in a manner I found really disturbing. When the red wedding happened, I had already started to skip pages, only being vaguely interested in the story of Arya. It was at this point that I realized that any kind of reunion of one or more Starks would be far, far in the future and might not even happen. And was I really in the mood to chuck through pages of pages of murder only to get to the obvious conclusion that Bran would end up on the throne? (Yeah, so much for Game of Thrones being oh so unpredictable, I called it more than ten years ago. Yay me!!!! And it seems that I was also right about John, Arya and Sansa being the characters which would survive for sure…I was 50/50 with Tyrone, but the character was in a way too clever to die…the only big question was if there would be a marriage between Daenerys and some Stark or if she would get even more and more unstable and finally get killed off)

    So I never really watched Game of Thrones. I once caught a few episode in the night and, well, examined them, only to realize that the show made what I already didn’t like about the book even worse!

    So, in my book (pun not intended) I think that the fans of the show can call themselves lucky that they have finally gotten the conclusion which was pretty obvious ages ago without even more annoying stalling.

    Sorry…maybe I am so uncharitable exactly because I have read so much fantasy. Take away the “let’s spend ages to build up characters just to randomly kill them off” gimmick (which isn’t exactly unique to Game of Thrones either, it just spends more time on the built-ups), and it always was a pretty run-of-the-mill story. And I personally lean more towards the kind of fantasy which explores the notion of different societies, inventive magic and adventures in strange lands than the “let’s go kind of medieval but call if fantasy so I don’t have to worry about historical accuracy” kind of fantasy. Always felt that it was kind of a cop out. (Especially since if you don’t have to worry about historical accuracy, why do you feel the need to abuse women left and right for so called accuracy?)

  9. it always was a pretty run-of-the-mill story. it the part that is most disappointing. I have spent 8 years and however many hours for it be have pretty run-of-the-mill ending. That is most disappointing part of the finale. Finales never make everyone happy.. but still I thought this show would have at least a semi decent pay off. Instead we just got a run of the mill good bye to everyone and semi happy have heargdc endings… at Jon Snow will be drowning in wilding happy endings.

  10. Kelly when you say “Little could they have known that Martin would fail to keep up his end of the bargain” , is that a reference to Martin not finishing the books? Serious the dude had almost a decade to do it!?

    The finale isn’t as gloomy as the uproar indicates. It’s strangely satisfying. Some of the character bashing is weird, don’t you think? I didn’t get the ending I wanted but you have to be a realist to realise this isn’t my story.

    I’m glad you bonded with your brother watching this epic show.

    1. Yes on the first question. The point is when Benioff and Weiss first started out I’m sure they never dreamt Martin would suddenly stop publishing new books. The continued existence of his text was a huge selling point in their pitch to HBO. It was a real, “Look, this dude is doing all the plot work for us. That’s covered. We just have to focus on executing the vision.” When the first season of the show debuted, the longest Martin had gone in-between new “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels was 6 years, and it was already widely known he planned to wrap it all up after the next two books. Given that, you can certainly see a scenario where maybe, just maybe the show run its course before Martin finishes the last book, but you’d at least assume he’d have one more book out in that time. Instead, there’s been nothing.

      The last thing to happen in the books is Jon Snow being stabbed by the Night’s Watch under slightly different circumstances than on the show. That novel ends without any clarification as to whether Jon survives or dies from the attack. So, pretty much everything since then on the show has been fan fiction, Benioff and Weiss’ version of how they think things are going to go. Martin gives them some pointers, but he can’t stop them from doing their own thing. And thus far none of the involved are saying if the way the show ended is truly the way Martin plans to end the books. It’s highly likely that this ultimate ending is damn close to what Martin is going to do, just that the details of how it happens will differ and he’ll likely put in more of the grunt work so that it all makes more sense.

      As for the second part, there is an argument to be made that by running with a generally happy ending Game of Thrones goes out doing what it was always most known for subverting expectations. Everyone expected something gloomy and twisty with a high body count. Instead, Jon killed Dany as expected and then everything kind of just worked out for the best, with so much adventure yet to be had by our surviving heroes that it’s wide open for sequels or spin-offs…none of which will likely arrive since Martin has previously said the only kind of spin-off he’ll approve is a prequel.

      But, there seem to be three distinct camps of criticism when it comes to Game of Thrones: Season 8: Those who hate it full stop, those who will allow that most of the show’s controversial storytelling decisions are vaguely defendable on a thematic level but simply needed more episodes and more legwork to feel truly organic, and those who think it all actually works and makes total sense as is.

      I’m in that latter category. I can be convinced that everything we just watched – Arya killing the Night King, the White Walker menace turning out to be a giant red herring, Dany breaking bad, Jon going full circle and returning to the Wall, Bran “winning” the titular Game of Thrones – was inevitable. I just can’t be convinced that any of it felt totally organic, not with how needlessly rushed these final 13 episodes felt. At least not right now. Like most other prestige TV dramas, this Game of Thrones finale is going to be chewed over for a long, long time. Down the road, it might work better for me.

      In a pretty big way, this is the flip-side of The Last Jedi experience for me. There, Rian Johnson came in and totally deconstructed the Star Wars mythos in a way which I found shocking but invigorating. His point was to dirty up Luke Skywalker and move away from the Joseph Campbell monomyth “hero’s journey.” Star Wars suddenly became a universe in which war profiteers exist, muddying the moral waters away from a simplistic good vs. evil since the Rebels and First Order all get their weapons from somewhere and in that somewhere a bunch of people are always getting rich. Beyond that, Luke Skywalker, one of the most iconic characters in the history of film, was presented as someone who had lost hope and was actually the cause of Ben Solo’s turn toward the Dark Side. Luke was a failed old man, and he dies redeemed but without ever actually lifting a lightsaber in battle, disappearing into nothingness with no one around to say goodbye to his physical form.

      It, to state the obvious, did not go over super well, but I was totally on board with Rian Johnson doing something so punk rock with the biggest franchise in the land.

      Game of Thrones is doing something similar. In its final 2 episodes, it revealed we spent 8 seasons thinking we were watching the rise of a hero – Dany – when in fact we were witnessing the birth of a villain. It is again a deconstruction of our hero myths and subversion of expectations. It also ties into the ongoing theme that power or the quest for it corrupts everyone on the show. That’s why the truly noblest among them are those who don’t actually want power, like Jon, and largely why Bran ends up on the throne. Outside of Arya, you could have hardly picked anyone who desired the throne less than him.

      I just think they needed 20 episodes, not 13, to properly tell that ending. These final two seasons were just too damn short and too rushed.

      But, boy, was it ever a ride, this show. Never in my wildest dreams would I have guessed the show which created the expression “sexposition” and initially drew fans in because of all the sex and violence would turn into this worldwide phenomenon. “It’s like Lord of the Rings, but with a truly hard R-rating and more of a medieval history vibe. And people are going to go crazy for it,” was the pitch back in the day. They turned that odd recipe into one of the most memorable shows of all-time.

      1. I too can imagine that Martin will fill in the threads to give the story more substance. But I fear we will be waiting a very long time. It’s likely he may never get around to it!?

        Thanks again for your insights into a series you have obviously loved. I was a latecomer to it, and I feel I’m more than happy to sit on the fence about GOT. It was indeed epic, sucking the world into its web, except we all forgot to look out for the spider lurking in the corner.

      2. On the first part, I had a conversation with a friend earlier today about this and she used the expression “if George Martin finishes his books” instead of “when he finishes.” For years, we all assumed it was never in doubt that Martin would eventually finish his books. Now that the show is truly over and Martin still has given us no sign when his next novel will arrive, there is this creeping, almost annoyed sense that this dude may never finish these books. He is 70 years old, after all, and if the existence of the show wasn’t a good enough deadline for him to want to finish his books then who knows what’ll do the trick. Maybe the reaction to the final season will be the kick in the butt he needs.

        I know there was a theory recently that Martin has in fact already finished the next 2 novels, and they’ve been holding them back to be released shortly after the show’s series finale. So, I guess it’s faintly possible there will be some big announcement in a couple of weeks like that, but Martin has already debunked that particular theory. More likely, the books aren’t close to done and might not be for some time.

  11. I wasn’t a fan of the last two season, by any means, but I think that with the way they structured the story arcs and sub plots, this was probably the best way they could’ve ended it. Dany going mad Queen and burning everyone was kind of expected especially after the Battle of the Gold Road/Field of Fire when anyone who didn’t join her was torched.

    Jon stabbing her was a 50/50 shot. I thought it was either going to be him or Arya but it would’ve happened none the less. Getting sent back to the Night’s watch though? Come on…Personally I think it would’ve been more, I don’t know, symbolic (?) for Jon to have been beheaded on the crumbling steps of the Balor like his surrogate father was, further showing that good/honourable people can’t play the Game of Thrones.

    I’m also 100% convinced that Martin will die before he finishes the books and Brandon Sanderson is going to have to come in a ghost write the books.

  12. if it was Martin though, you can expect him to kill Tyrion just to top the red wedding. But he’ll do it in a sweet choking manner like when Stannis Baratheon slowly lost his army, family, and then life in one winter storm.

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