This series analyzes the show, but sometimes references the books as well. If you read it, expect spoilers for both.
Here it is – the series finale.
Picking up where we left off, King’s Landing is a pile of smoking rubble, Dany has gone full wrong-side-of-the-coin Targaryen, and all the characters are walking around very slowly and looking troubled. Peter Dinklage’s brows were probably sore for days after filming his first scene.
The action moves deliberately through the city’s ruins, checking in on several characters along the way, and there’s a growing sense of horror at what’s happened. Dany gives a speech to her victorious troops, in either Dothraki or Valyrian.I couldn’t tell, how is it that both the Unsullied and the Dothraki seem to be able to understand her? Checking the credits afterwards, I expected to see that this episode was directed by Miguel Sapochnik, but it turns out to have been Benioff and Weiss themselves. I was a bit surprised, but shouldn’t have been – the direction here shows off some of their strengths, like a knack for painterly framing and creating an operatic sense of scale.
It also showcases their habit of doing everything extremely slowly, and it’s more than twenty minutes into the runtime before we get to our first significant dialogue. It’s Jon, who’s visiting Tyrion after the latter has been imprisoned for freeing Jaime.Turns out someone did notice after all. First Arya and now Tyrion are attempting to convince Jon to turn on Dany, since she’s quite clearly lost her marbles, or at least whichever marbles stop her from killing what might have been hundreds of thousands of civilians. Jon, as usual, is the slowest character on the uptake.
I’m being critical, but this scene was actually pretty good. It had actual dialogue instead of just nonversation. Tyrion lays out the process by which Dany became convinced of her fundamental rightness, and her growing belief that her ruthlessness is always justified. It’s a nice bit of characterization – however, it’s one that would have been better shown than told afterwards. Over the seasons, I’ve watched enough of the “behind the episode” sections to have noticed that the showrunners prefer to explain character motivations after the fact rather than show them to the audience as they’re happening. I don’t agree with that as a storytelling practice, but I can’t claim they’re not consistent.
It’s not clear whether Jon is convinced, and he continues to the throne room, where Dany is full of messianic certainty about her mission of “freeing” the entirety of Westeros, Essos, and beyond. Jon can’t get over his horror at what he’s seen below. During these two scenes, I mentally revised my opinion of Kit Harrington as an actor upwards. He’s not given an easy job, seeing as Jon’s usual stage directions are “stand there and look miserable,” but when given the chance to show actual human emotions he does it in a way that rings true. Emilia Clarke does well too, but that I expected.
This scene, against all odds, did in fact provoke an emotional response in me. My understanding is that GRRM told the writers, in broad strokes, how his planned ending was going to play out, so it’s likely that this particular sequence is indeed his vision, even if the particulars of how the story gets there are probably different. It plays into Jon’s theme as a protector of people, referenced by Tyrion’s allusion to the Night’s Watch vows: “the shield that guards the realms of Men.” I have no shortage of criticisms of everything that surrounds it, such as how neatly Dany fits into an unfortunate “hysterical woman” trope, and how the show’s only remaining people of color resemble various troubling caricatures of the menacing foreigner. But the scene itself works pretty well. It ends with Drogon flying in, burning the Iron Throne, scooping up his dead mother, and flying off into the distance.
The episode goes sharply, and I mean sharply, downhill from there.
Tyrion is taken from his impromtu cell in chains and led to a conference in the Dragonpit, with the lords and ladies of the remaining great houses in attendance. They need to chose a new King. It just so happens that the now-legitimized Gendry Baratheon is there, but no one notices or mentions that. Edmure Tully (remember him?) gets up and gives a self-important speech that’s played for poorly-timed comedy (seriously guys, Dany just died like ten minutes of screen time ago). Then Samwell (why would he even be here?) suggests that Westeros switch over to a democracy, but they’re not far enough along in the tech tree for that, so he gets laughed off stage. Then Tyrion starts talking and, as the Norwegians and Minnesotans say, uff da.
Tyrion’s role for the past several seasons has been to volunteer terrible ideas that everyone takes seriously for some reason, and his latest is to make Bran King. Yes, Bran, the three-eyed Raven, who is neither a Targaryen nor a Baratheon nor even entirely human at this point. Tyrion’s justification is something about stories being important and how Bran has the best story. I didn’t follow all of it because I was trying to hold in laughter. So then everyone votes, including Robin Arryn, Unnamed Dornish Prince, Generic Lords #1 and #2, and the entire peanut gallery, including Sam, Brienne, and Davos, who even notices the fact that him even having a vote doesn’t make any sense.
And now Bran is King. They call him “Bran the Broken.” They acknowledge that he can’t have children, and decide that they’ll gather again to pick a new King when he dies. That will almost certainly end in disaster, but now that the show is over at least we won’t have to see it. Oh, and Sansa declares the North an independent Kingdom, and okay fine whatever. Grey Worm wants Jon dead, but settles for him joining the Night’s Watch. “There’s still a Night’s Watch?” Jon asks, just the latest in the show’s tradition of perfectly sensible questions that never get properly answered.
Tyrion is Hand of the King again. Billy Martin wishes he got as many chances as this guy. The Small Council is rounded out by “Archmaester” Sam (what? how?), Ser Brienne (Lord Commander of the Kingsguard now), Ser Bronn of the Blackwater (finally got his castle), and Ser Davos. There’s a bit of banter and I suppose I could see a sitcom with this bunch working, but my mood is currently too sour to really appreciate it.
We end on a montage. Sansa is Queen in the North, which she should have been since the end of season six, but better late than never I suppose. Arya has become Westerosi Columbus and decided to sail for the new world. Another one of my predictions proven wrong – I thought that particular throwaway line (it was in season six, I think?) would never be mentioned again, but they snuck it in just under the wire. Jon has gone north, where he finally pets Ghost (hooray!) and then takes the wildlings north to do… something. Where are they going? Why? I have no idea.
And now our watch has ended.
It’s all over but the shouting, and boy is there a lot of shouting. Suffice to say that the fandom has some objections to how the final season played out. The backlash started sometime after episode three, and since then there’s been the counter-backlash and the counter-counter-backlash. The great undulating mass of the internet is searching for equilibrium, having already advanced to the petition stage as early as episode four. Those of you who were around for the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle are probably feeling a bit of deja vu right now.
I suppose that this is the place where I could claim that I called it – after all, I predicted back in the beginning of this series that Game of Thrones was in the early stages of story collapse back in season five. However, I didn’t get it entirely right. I honestly thought the backlash would come sooner – like, a full year sooner. And I expected that it would come from established critics first, and filter down to the rest of the fanbase. Instead, it’s largely been the other way round. Mainstream publications, at least, have remained positive on the show, if not quite glowing. Instead, the barbaric yawps over the rooftops of Twitter and Reddit have been the primary source of criticism.
There was something else I expected, or maybe it would be better to say hoped. I hoped that people would start asking why the show’s writing was deficient. Some people have thrown out theories. Many have noticed that the quality went downhill after the show outpaced the books, and speculated that the writers were better at adaptation than original material. A now-famous twitter thread (reproduced here in more readable article form) attributed the decline to the difference between two different categories of writer, dubbed “plotters” and “pantsers.” Countless others have written screeds of various lengths detailing their own opinions on what exactly went wrong and how.
There’s probably some insight in these analyses. However, very few people have come to the conclusion that I did, which is that the writing is bad because the writers are unqualified. That may sound tautological at first, but on examining their credentials it’s hard to avoid coming to that conclusion. I don’t like throwing mud at individual people, who are probably having a miserable enough experience already without me piling on. In fact, one of my worries is that fan dissatisfaction is going to devolve into personal harassment, if it hasn’t already. However, there’s a lesson to be learned from Game of Thrones, and it requires some naming of names to learn it.
By the final season, it had four remaining writers: Dave Hill, Bryan Cogman, and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. I’ve done casual research on all four (meaning, I wikipedia’d them, googled them, and read/watched a few interviews and such), which I’ll summarize here:
David Benioff: Benioff is most experienced writer of the four. He has an academic background in writing and literature, and holds an MFA in creative writing. He also has screenwriting experience, having written the screenplays for (among others) Troy, The Kite Runner, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
D.B. Weiss: Weiss has a published novel, called Lucky Wander Boy. He has also apparently worked on multiple screenplays (one was based on Ender’s Game, one was a proposal for an aborted HALO movie, and one was a prequel to I Am Legend), but none were ever produced.
Dave Hill: He worked as an assistant to Benioff and Weiss early on in the show, then was promoted to writer in the fifth season. I couldn’t find anything else he’s worked on.
Bryan Cogman: Studied acting at Julliard. Appears to have had no prior writing experience before his hiring.
So, of season eight’s four writers, only one of them had ever actually had a screenplay produced prior to Game of Thrones. Two of the four appear to have had no professional writing experience whatsoever at the time they were hired. Does that seem right to you? It doesn’t to me.
Good writing doesn’t just come out of the ether. It comes from a combination of good writers, creative freedom, and a well-managed process. My personal TV Mount Rushmore currently has only two shows on it: early Simpsons (seasons 2-7ish) and The Wire. While operating in two very different genres, it’s notable how seriously each show took its writing process. The Simpsons, at its peak, had an all-star team of ten or more full-time writers, which reportedly put each script through as many as forty drafts. The Wire operated off the “write what you know” principle, and for its depiction of a dysfunctional Baltimore drew on people with real-world experience (former journalists, police, and school teachers for example) as well as writing chops.
The conclusion I draw from the above is this: good TV writing requires that the show take writing seriously, as though it’s a craft honed through experience and care. This conclusion is treated as obvious in other areas of production. They didn’t, for example, pull some random guy off the street and ask him to play Tywin Lannister, or design the show’s costumes, or manage the lighting and sets. And yet three of season eight’s four writers had, as near as I can tell, exactly zero screenwriting credits between them prior to Game of Thrones. Of course, it’s not impossible that an unproven rookie can produce a good script, but it’s much less likely.
Whenever something like this happens, I always look to the bosses rather than the employees for an explanation. Is there a reason that HBO’s bigwigs let this happen? Once GRRM was no longer involved in the show, you would think they would bring in some experienced pens to pick up the slack. But they didn’t. I’ve long suspected that, broadly speaking, the upper management culture of the entertainment industry simply doesn’t take writing seriously as a profession. They seem to think it’s something just anyone can do, including themselves. I wish I knew why, because from where I’m sitting this habit has consistently bitten them in the ass for decades. Yet they can’t break it. I won’t go into more examples, because that’s a subject for another article or an entire series, but suffice to say it’s frustrating to watch.
And, as long as I’m throwing blame in all directions, I’m going to go ahead and throw some at the Emmys too. Benioff and Weiss recieved two Emmy awards for writing during the show’s run, beating out The Americans, Better Call Saul, Mad Men, and others. I understand that awards shows are largely popularity contests, but poor writing has little incentive to improve if it keeps getting showered in awards.
It’s hard to conclude all my thoughts on eight seasons of Game of Thrones in a single post, especially after I’m fresh off watching the finale. I’m planning an additional wrap-up post once I’ve had a bit more time to process, but I’ll be returning to Saturdays rather than Sunday/Mondays now that the show is over.
 I couldn’t tell, how is it that both the Unsullied and the Dothraki seem to be able to understand her?
 Turns out someone did notice after all.
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