tl;dr – Game of Thrones : it’s not perfect, but it’s perfect for me.
There are spoilers for all except the last episode, so please consider yourselves warned.
I wasn’t planning to write about Game of Thrones, partly because I came to it so late. I understand many people are very invested, having watched from the beginning. I binged the first seven seasons in the three weeks before the start of the eighth – and somehow have managed to be awake at 2 am for all the new episodes as they arrived.
Perhaps, having watched the whole thing in one mad rush in such a short time, I have a different sense of the story to those who watched one season at a time. Maybe I had less time to get attached to my perception of the characters.
Of course this is only my personal response. There will be lots of things I missed. I’ve likely been led astray by my own personal battle between heart and brain. Please do let me know if you see it differently. There’s never one right way to understand a story.
I was amazed to discover there’s a petition to ask HBO to produce an alternative final season from the many fans who feel let down by the way the story is going – especially that fifth episode, The Bells.
What made me laugh the most was the wording of the petition –
“This series deserves a final season that makes sense. Subvert my expectations and make it happen, HBO!”
This is supremely ironic, since what they are all really objecting to is that the writers (the ones they dismiss as incompetent) have subverted their expectations about the characters and the story.
Several people have written excellent pieces defending the final season, and done a great job of it – I will link to those at the end.
Anyone who was surprised by Danaerys’ orgy of destruction in Kings Landing wasn’t watching what I was watching. The clues were all there from the beginning. She fell in love with Khal Drogo who promised to rape and destroy and conquer in her name. She was constantly having to be held back by her advisers, and even they could not always moderate her behaviour.
The foreshadowing was cleverly done, and I suspect it was easy to believe in Danaerys because we were shown from the very beginning that she’s been wronged. She’s raised in exile. We see the way her brother tries to use her as a pawn in his ambition to regain the throne, and we see the attempts to assasinate her. So we empathise with her, this beautiful young woman who through no fault of her own is the target of so much intrigue. We overlook her reaction to her brother’s cruel death, because we know how he treated her.
If revenge is a good enough reason, why does Danaerys kill Mirri Maz Duur, who was only seeking revenge for the destruction of her village? If it’s about justice, why does she not care to make sure the slave masters she has crucified are all guilty?
Perhaps because of our sympathy with her, we miss her own growing mania for power, her belief in her own destiny – whatever the cost. She has a genuine concern for the slaves and the unsullied, so we are lulled into believing that she has genuinely good intentions. Still, her genuice care doesn’t extend into long term planning and she still wants the unsullied to fight her battles. She gives them a choice, but what’s the alternative? And all the time we see Joffrey and Cersei and the Lannisters and their cruelty – she surely is a better bet than them?
We also sympathise with the characters who support her claim. From Ser Barristan and Jorah Mormont, through Grey Worm and Missandei, and Varys and Tyrion – these are all characters we like and just as they want to trust in her ability to make a good ruler, so do we.
Even as he is about to destroyed by dragon fire, Varys (after failing to poison Danaerys) says he hopes he is wrong.
He isn’t wrong though.
Even before we see her let loose on Kings Landing after the surrender, we know Varys was right.
Her response to the discovery that Jon Snow’s claim to the throne is stronger than hers is key. She doesn’t want people to know. Her claim was always that the throne was rightfully hers – and now she knows it isn’t, she is worried that Jon Snow is more loved than she is. She is happy to choose fear. Her idea of mercy is to destroy the current generation so that future generations may be free – but free of the Lannisters, not free of her own tyranny.
She’s not the hero everyone wanted. As Varys said, “Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath.”
The outbreaks of green wildfire in the devastation of Kings Landing should have reminded us all of what the Targaryens are capable of.
The disappointment many people feel mirrors the disappointment when Jon Snow was cheated out of his role as hero, when Arya killed the Night King.
Again, it was all foreshadowed… Arya’s training with the Faceless Men prepared her for the fight, Bran gave her the Valyrian steel dagger. She’s good at sticking people with the pointy end.
We’ve also seen Jon’s journey – a traditional hero’s journey if ever there was one. He was even brought back from the dead by the Lord of Light and the Red Woman so that he could lead the battle against the Night King.
But although it seemed that Jon was set to the hero of this story from the beginning of the very first season, he has never quite convinced me. He is, to quote Jonn Elledge,
” pure hearted, the true heir to the throne, and, in every sense that matters, a complete fucking idiot: he makes bad calls, has never actually won a battle, and has repeatedly had to be bailed out, mostly by his sisters. But the other characters, like a chunk of the audience, want to believe in him, because they desperately want a hero to make everything better.”
He doesn’t want to be leader, he doesn’t want the Iron Throne. He persisted in believing in Danaerys beyond all reason – and so he shares in the responsibility for the death and destruction she wrought.
Is Jon Snow going to turn out to the hero everybody’s hoping for in the final episode? I can’t see it myself. I also keep reminding myself he is Tragaryen as well as Stark.
The other wrong-headed criticism (in my view) comes from those people who wanted Arya to kill Cersei – who thought that those few words from the Hound would not have been enough to persuade her to give up on her plan for revenge.
I’m very fond of revenge stories. I’ve allowed a character to get away with revenge in my own novel. I understand the allure. How could we not rejoice as Arya crossed all those names off her list? Especially her revenge on Walder Frey and his family for the Red Wedding. This is a story that has tricked us all into empathising with someone who is basically not just a girl with a list, but a serial killer.
Did we really want to see her throw away her life on revenge, to kill Cersei? I confess I prefer a story which gives her a chance at redemption.
There was foreshadowing for her decision. It was obvious in the time she spent travelling with the Hound, that she was getting closer to him. She may have left him to die – but she refrained from killing him. She didn’t kill the actress when it was demanded of her by the Many Faced God. When she was on her way to Kings Landing to kill Cersei, and she finds out from Hot Pie that Winterfell has been taken back by her family, she puts off her planned revenge to return to her family.
The Hound has been on his own redemptive journey by the time they are in the Red Keep – and he and Arya have become closer, fighting side by side against the Night King’s army.
Of course she is ready to listen to him, and to choose life.
When she called the Hound Sandor, I confess I cried a little.
Next we see her trying, and failing, to save ordinary people. a mother and daughter, as the city is burned to the ground, followed by the almost magical, mystical appearance of the white horse to carry her safely out of the burning city…
Maybe Arya is the hero everyone is waiting for?
She’s certainly a better bet than Jon Snow, and I wouldn’t write Sansa off, either.
I am looking forward to the last episode, to find out – but given that the writers have so far done a fabulous job of subverting all our expectations, I am very worried for Arya and all the Starks. And in my heart of hearts, I think this is a nuanced story without heroes and easy answers.
Of course, the final season is imperfect.
Every fictional piece is imperfect – and especially any which are of this length and complexity. I was only able to complete my first novel after reading on Neil Gaiman’s blog that “a novel is a long piece of prose that has something wrong with it.” Until I realised the truth of that, I was paralysed by perfectionism.
So where do I find fault?
Brienne. I can well believe she would fall for Jaime Lannister. Who wouldn’t? I also believe that she would plead with him not to return to Kings Landing. Do I believe she would beg in that particular way, for herself? I don’t think so. I don’t think years of keeping her guard up, and hiding her feelings from everyone including herself would just disappear after a couple of nights even with Ser Jaime himself. She’d do it for his sake, because it was the right thing to do. And that would cost her dear, too. It would be a struggle.
Maybe if there’d been a longer relationship, not just the apparent developing professional cameraderie and friendship. But no, Brienne would not lose those defences so easily.
Tyrion has become something of a disappointment. He remains one of my favourite characters, but choosing Danaerys over Varys? I suppose the attempted poisoning might have affected his choice, but I find it hard to believe that he trusted in Danaerys to show mercy to the common people.
Again, I guess it was foreshadowed in his attempt to negotiate with Cersei. If anyone should have known Cersei could not be trusted…
Perhaps his mistake, and that of Varys, is justified by the overarching theme which seems to be in the Game of Thrones there are no good moves and there are no winners.
I did really enjoy his last scene with Jaime, though. Another very emotionally touching moment.
It’s interesting that family is also at the heart of the story – as the source of the most pain, but also as a source of strength.
Jaime and Cersei. The story justifies that ending for them – it was, after all, foretold. Jaime has been an idiot throughout. I quite liked that Cersei seemed a little more human as she was about to die – which mirrored how much less human Danaerys had become. To me that seemed to say it wasn’t just the individuals, but the power. She became more human, the less power she had. So that worked, I think – apart from the fact that it all depended on Euron Greyjoy conveniently washing up on the same beach purely so that he could wound Jaime.
Structurally, I was a bit disappointed by the early defeat of the Night King and the army of the dead – which had really been built up as the scariest of the battles. They’re dead! They are a product of dark magic and are difficult to kill and impossible to understand. Defeating them should be the climax of the story.
I suppose it’s possible to argue that actually the theme of Game of Thrones is that the struggle for power and the part of human nature that revels in war is the most terrifying battle of all. Consider Cersei’s refusal to believe in the threat from the North, or her willingness to take advantage of it to cut her enemies down to size. Looked at in that light, maybe the human battles are the toughest – especially when you consider the divided loyalties.
What else doesn’t quite work for me?
The dragons. They add so much to Danaerys’ mystique, and they are clearly a source of glamour and of power. The loss of her dragons contributes to Danaerys’ increasing isolation, and is one factor which tips her over the edge. But then, after the dragons seeming so vulnerable to the Scorpion, she unleashes all that horror with her one remaining dragon? Also, there really ought to be some sense of rules about how much firepower a dragon can exhale at any one time, surely. Or is it just magic? I dislike magic without constraints in a story – it’s just a little too convenient.
The Gods. What are they up to?
What’s going on with that whole religion of the Lord of Light, R’hllor? Why bring Jon Snow back to life? Why bring Beric back to life? If the Gods have some over-riding plan, what the fuck is it?
There are the Old Gods in the North, The Drowned God of the Iron Islands, the Many Faced God of Braavos, the Seven…
There’s no denying that the various religions add to the richness of the world and provide some brilliant storylines. Arya’s training with the assassins’ cult of the Many Faced God. The High Sparrow’s religious extremism and how that plays out with Cersei, Tommen, and the Tyrrels.
It’s the introduction of visions and magic through the Red Woman and the Lord of Light that sits uneasily with me – not because I object to mysteries and magic in stories, but because it leaves too many loose ends.
What stake does the Lord of Light have in the Game of Thrones that he chooses to bring back Beric and Jon Snow? We get a few clues that the prophecies can be misinterpreted and that the Gods move in mysterious ways. But still, it leaves me with questions.
Beric’s life is restored so often so that he can keep Arya on track to destroy the Night King. Her kill is totally earned – but for the magic that gets her there, which I don’t feel is quite justified. What interest does the Lord of Light have in Jon Snow? Why is the Lord of Light interested in this particular Game? He’s a God of Essos, not Westeros, isn’t he? So why is he on the side of the Starks?
Bran, the three eyed raven and the warging and all that. I get that it’s a very useful way to tell us all the backstory, to reveal the truth about Jon Snow’s lineage, and how it all happened.
Bran was also key in the battle as bait for the Night King – attracting him to the Godswood so that someone, anyone, Arya could finish him off. Was that the end of Bran’s part in this story? Or is there more to come in the final episode which will tie it all together?
He was also touched by the Night King, wasn’t he? And we know what the touch of the Night King does. I confess I am wondering about how the next cycle might begin…
So with the Night King defeated (forever, or just for now?) as the personification of Ice, the last episode must be about the defeat of Fire, in the person of Danaerys and her remaining dragon. Or Fire’s victory, perhaps.
For the night is dark and full of terrors – and the source of the worst terror is always human.
The only thing I am sure the last episode will bring is more heartbreak.
The Game of Thrones is a game with no winners. The players themselves are all losers – but as ever, the common people, who are merely pawns, also lose.
Disappointment with that theme and conclusion may reveal something about our need for heros and leaders and our general unwillingness to turn away from ambition and power and war.
Jonn Elledge in The New Statesman on the inevitability of Danaerys’ story
And in the Guardian, Luke Holland asks viewers to stop nitpicking