Now that the dust has settled around what’s left of King’s Landing, there is room to examine why some fans have felt betrayed by season eight of Game of Thrones. The fan reaction to the episode has been divisive, with some overzealous and misguided fans petitioning for a “redo” of this season. While I’m certainly not among those folks, I found myself very angry at my favorite dragon show more than once this season. While it’s not uncommon for a series to drop the ball in the last inning, Game of Thrones final season has felt spectacularly disappointing.
Everything’s on Fast-Forward
Except for the brilliant “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”, this season of Game of Thrones has felt rushed. Remember when the Kingsroad took at least a few episodes for characters to traverse the continent? The Kingsroad was the setting for many of the series’ best character interactions. Showing characters traveling together allowed the show to breathe and gave us insight into how they felt about one another. Kingsroad travels gave us the adventures of Gendry, Arya, and Hot Pie. They gave us Jaime defending Brienne and losing his hand. Most importantly, they gave us Arya and the Hound.
When Arya and the Hound set off together at the end of “The Last of the Starks”, it hinted at their travels together. Instead of spending time with them, their scene in “The Bells” has Sandor convincing Arya not to die foolishly and then heading off to Cleganebowl. While the latter was admittedly satisfying, showing Sandor try to convince Arya that her mission was foolish on the Kingsroad would have brought emphasis to the scene. It would make more sense if he had been trying to sway her the entire time. Instead, it feels as if it comes out of nowhere, and he convinces her to change her mind at the last second. If her convictions were that flimsy, why did she come at all? She’s been saying Cersei’s name every night for more than 6 years now, and one talk from Papa Hound changes her mind. It lacks emotional impact because it doesn’t make sense.
By teleporting the characters around and making the timeline ambiguous at best, the focus moves away from the characters and their arcs and onto the overall story. They begin to feel like pawns on a game board being set up for big moments, instead of characters with motivations to do the things they do.
We Need to Talk About Jaime
Fans of George R.R. Martin’s novels have been frustrated with the series’ depiction of Jaime Lannister since the season four episode “Breaker of Chains”. Jaime is one of Martin’s complicated and ultimately sympathetic characters. We’re introduced to him as a golden-haired monster who pushes 10-year-olds out windows, but over the course of the series, he grows. That growth culminates when he rescues Brienne from an attempted rape, losing his sword hand in the process.
In “Breaker of Chains”, Jaime rapes Cersei in the sept beneath Joffrey’s corpse. In the scene in the novel, Cersei is a willing participant. She’s initially reluctant out of fear of being caught, but she soon begs her brother for sex.
“Hurry,” she was whispering now, “quickly, quickly, now, do it now, do me now. Jaime Jaime Jaime.” Her hands helped guide him. “Yes,” Cersei said as he thrust, “my brother, sweet brother, yes, like that, yes, I have you, you’re home now, you’re home now, you’re home.” – A Storm of Swords
If Jaime was willing to face his punishment for saving Brienne from rape, why would he turn around and rape the only woman in the world he truly cares about? Many fans chose to ignore the sequence entirely, because it made Jaime irredeemable and he was otherwise sympathetic.
In “The Last of the Starks”, Jaime tells a sobbing Brienne that he is cruel and that all he has ever cared about is Cersei. While reducing The Maid of Tarth to a sobbing “don’t leave me” trope is troublesome enough, Jaime’s cruelty feels out of character. Season one Jaime might do something that awful, but we’ve watched him grow for seven seasons. To return to his season one behavior now with no impetus besides his “addiction to Cersei” is frustrating.
What’s even more frustrating is Cersei and Jaime’s reunion. Cersei’s death was prophesized by Maggy the Frog, who correctly foretold Cersei’s marriage to Robert, the number of her children, and their deaths. Maggy tells her that “…when your tears have drowned you, the valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you.” Valonqar is High Valyrian for “little brother”.
The final sequence of Jaime and Cersei in “The Bells” shows Cersei sobbing while Jaime holds her, his hands on her neck. The subversion doesn’t work because Jaime’s decision to go back to King’s Landing to be with her feels forced. He went from romancing Brienne to getting crushed beneath rocks with Cersei before we had a moment to process his ultimately confusing choice.
Additionally, there was plenty of hinting at a fun death for Cersei, something that felt more narratively satisfying. Jaime went on the Kingsroad at the same time as the Hound and Arya – some fans wondered if Arya would kill Jaime, take his face, and then finally cross off the top name on her list. Another opportunity, after Euron tells Jaime that he’s “the man who killed Jaime Lannister”, felt set up to have Arya take that title from him. Instead, an irredeemable Jaime and Cersei die in one another’s arms. Are we supposed to empathize with them? Romanticize them? Instead of any kind of catharsis, I only had more questions.
Loose Threads and Missed Opportunities
Not getting answers seems to be a theme in season eight. In prior seasons, a character going away for a bit meant that they would return at some point, probably to everyone’s surprise. Instead, several characters simply vanished, never to be heard from again or to return and abruptly die. Osha and Rickon Stark? Nymeria and her massive pack of wolves? Meera Reed, who deserves to at least get home safely? Is Aeron Damphair still around somewhere?
While they knew it was a long shot, some fans were also hoping to see big moments or characters from the books at long last. I, for one, will never get over the fact that we didn’t get to see Lady Stoneheart or a more fully presented Kingsmoot.
A longer season (or even two seasons) would have given the series a chance to wrap up its loose threads more satisfactorily. It would have also given the series a chance to play with more of the novels’ amazing characters and situations.
Fire and Blood
I always figured Daenerys would snap one day and go full Targaryen. She said it herself, really, back in season two: “When my dragons are grown … we will lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground.”
The problem then, doesn’t lie with Dany razing King’s Landing, but rather how it all goes down. Dany might be the “stallion who mounts the world”, prophesized by Mirri Maz Duur. The prophecy says:
Fierce as a storm this prince will be. His enemies will tremble before him, and their wives will weep tears of blood and rend their flesh in grief. The bells in his hair will sing his coming, and the milk men in the stone tents will fear his name. The prince is riding, and he shall be the stallion who mounts the world.
The bells sang Dany’s coming, and the milk men in their stone tents (white people in King’s Landing) feared her name. This episode is having a bit of fun with the various prophecies in the novel, first by subverting the valonqar and then by making Dany the stallion instead of her dead son. That’s great, but why does Dany snap when she hears the bells? Those bells signal her victory. Sure, she’s concerned that the people will never love her, but if they are ringing the bells in defeat, they already fear her. She has no need to make them fear her more.
But that’s just what she does, killing innocents in wide swaths. We see how hurt she is when she speaks with Tyrion early in the episode, but her sudden bloodthirst still feels just that – sudden. The episode lingers on the horrors of her rampage, though the worst of the violence is suffered by women. We see a dead woman and her sobbing husband, a pregnant woman with her legs blown off, and a mother and daughter brutally separated while Arya attempts to escape the city.
Arya ends up being part of some other prophecy, discovering a perfectly clean and uninjured white horse in the middle of King’s Landing. It’s a reference to the Book of Revelation in the Bible, in which death rides upon a pale horse. Arya is supposed to close three sets of eyes: brown (Walder Frey), blue (The Night King), and green (Daenerys? In the books her eyes are purple, but in the series they’re green).
Mixing contemporary symbolism (the pale horse) with the rich symbolism of the world is strange this late in the game. There are plenty of symbols in the novels the series never explored (like Lyanna Stark’s blue roses), so introducing ones from our own world is jarring.
What We Can Learn
Look, I still love Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire, I just wish that the writers had handled the final two seasons of Game of Thrones with a bit more nuance. They were given Martin’s outline for what he plans to do with his final novels, and seasons seven and eight have felt like outlines. We see the broad strokes of the story without the moments of character interaction and growth that made us fall in love with the series to begin with.
“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”, the second episode of this season, is one of the best in the series’ history. Seeds planted throughout the series come to fruition, and character choices feel rooted in what we’ve seen them do before. Arya is given the chance to embrace her sexuality on her own terms, which is great given the series’ usual way of deflowering its characters. Brienne is finally knighted, and by Jaime, no less, bringing her arc to its pinnacle. Many of the series’ best characters are given a chance to shine, in small and intimate moments.
People fell in love with Game of Thrones because of those intimate moments. It was the political intrigue, the witty dialogue, and stellar acting that got people hooked. There are plenty of shows with fabulous costumes and fantasy or medieval settings, but few had the kind of character depth Game of Thrones exhibited in its early seasons. Many of the series’ best moments are those with only two or three characters on screen, with very little action. I’ll always remember Tyrion trying to learn more about Missandei and Grey Worm during the world’s most awkward drinking game. I’ll remember Cersei and the High Sparrow exchanging barbs. I’ll remember every single scene with Olenna Tyrell.
Game of Thrones was never really about the spectacle. It was about the characters, and they’ve taken a backseat to shock and big CGI-laden moments. It’s a shame, but hopefully it teaches creators to take their time with the last act of any series in the future. If the MCU managed to stick the landing by paying attention to what fans had loved all along, maybe Game of Thrones could have done the same.
It didn’t though, and that means there’s only one recourse:
So. Much. Fanfiction.
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