In its final two seasons, I think everyone agrees that Game of Thrones dropped the ball. In a big way. The Battle of Winterfell was shot (or distorted through digital compression) so badly that I literally could not see a thing that was happening. Bran becoming King was a nonsense. Brienne turning into a hysterical woman cliche pining for Jamie was insulting.
From a big picture perspective, the consensus is pretty clear that the show traded in good, careful story-telling and character work for splashy, meaningless spectacle in its back-end. Working under time constraints due to the compressed episode orders for Season 7 and 8, characters were often moved around at will as if by magic, without any consideration given to whether this was consistent with the logic of the story or the world.
This showed up geographically, with characters just popping up thousands of miles away from where they had been simply because that’s where the plot needed them to be. And it showed up in the actions of the characters. Dany’s heel turn is not, in and of itself, a bad twist - in fact, it could have been one of the all-time great tragic turns, if it had been developed carefully. Instead, we are essentially told by the script that she is bad now and we need to accept it. This violates the cardinal rule of Show, Don’t Tell. This flippant attitude toward the bones of the story they were telling shows up in Benioff and Weiss’ Emmy submission - the script for the final episode.
Riley McAtee has a good close-read over at The Ringer, but the part that really stood out to me was one where Jon is apologizing to Bran for not being there when he needed him, and Bran responds that he has always been where he needed to be. The script direction then chimes in with: “Hard to argue with omniscience.” And the scene is over.
This might seem like nerdy nit-picking over trivial details, but it gives us a glimpse into how the show-runners treated the last two seasons. They didn’t put the hard work into coming up with realistic motivations, or careful and textured character arcs. They simply invoked the all-knowing omniscience of their authority as show-runners to force the story to do what they wanted and what they felt it needed to do. This is why the final two seasons felt rushed, unsatisfying and bewildering.
I knew the goose was cooked back in Season 7 when Tyrion hatched an absolutely imbecilic plan to capture a wight to demonstrate to Cersei the urgency of fighting the undead. This plan was moronic. It predictably doesn’t even work, and leaves the audience wondering how Tyrion, a supposedly smart person, could have come up with such a dumb plan.
Well, the answer of course is that the plot needed a reason - any reason - to get certain characters beyond the Wall so that Dany could save them and get her dragon turned into a zombie and bring Dany and Jon together for some incest. It obviously didn’t matter to Benioff and Weiss how this situation was generated - it just needed to happen, and that is why Tyrion’s plan appears to have been thrown together in five minutes. Because it was thrown together in five minutes by writers in thrall to the structure of the plot.
The glaring holes in this moment are further compounded when the plan fails, a raven is dispatched to Dany on Dragonstone, and she arrives on the back of a dragon - all in the span of about 30 minutes. I don’t often hold shows, particularly those about mystical dragon wizards and zombies, to the highest of logical standards, but this one was so glaring it took you out of the flow of the world. It simply couldn’t be possible, especially given how carefully the show had painstakingly built up the world of Westeros during previous seasons. It underlined, in a really heavy-handed way, just how much the show no longer cared about details or careful story-telling. It only cared about making characters be where they had to be to service the plot.
These are fairly obvious and easily identifiable flaws in the way Game of Thrones was executed in its final two seasons. But there is something deeper and more flawed in the structure of the show that made this wildly unsatisfying conclusion possible, and it traces its roots all the way back to the books. We hated the ending of Game of Thrones, the HBO show. But if you have been reading the books, you would know that George R. R. Martin ran the train off the rails a long time ago.
A Game of Thrones, the first book in the series, is a masterpiece. Like Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, the only piece of high-fantasy literature to which it can possibly be compared, it carefully and masterfully builds a deeply textured world, inhabited by fully realized characters and shot through with a complex and gripping mythology. From cover to cover, it is an absolute joy to read and it provided the rich source material for HBO’s Game of Thrones to build on. Book Two, detailing the fallout from Ned’s execution and the civil war that wages in Westeros, was equally brilliant. It built on what had come before, deepening it in important ways, like setting Arya on her journey toward becoming a mystical assassin.
In Book Three, the mustard began to come off the hotdog. Yes, the book is famous because of the shocking violence of the Red Wedding and the way it subverts genre convention. And there is still a lot of good stuff in here. But you can also see that the lumbering inertia of the thing Martin was creating was starting to get weighed down by its own bloat and excess.
Book Four was almost unreadable. If I recall correctly, there were approximately 400 pages devoted to Brienne and Pod literally just riding their horses through the countryside from one village to another. Book Five was slightly better, but had become so bogged down in unimportant side-plots and extraneous gobbledy-gook, that Martin still hasn’t figured out where to go from there. That was almost a decade ago. Book Six may never be finished, and if it is I am quite sure it will be awful.
What is truly amazing about this phenomenon is that it’s exactly - and I mean exactly - what happened to Robert Jordan with the Wheel of Time. The first six books in that series were legit masterworks. Book Seven could charitably be called OK, but after that it went downhill fast and eventually had to be finished by someone else after Jordan died. As the books swelled in length, they began to be published more infrequently, with longer waits between installments. They also began to focus, almost pathologically, on the minutiae of the world-building like what people were eating, the description of each house coat of arms, and other totally inane stuff.
Martin has fallen into the very same trap. The amount of time he has devoted in more recent installments to describing what people are eating and wearing is shocking. That is all precious page space and writing time he could have been using to tell us what we really cared about, which is what happens next in the plot and what is next for our characters, like when will Dany ride her dragon. Instead, he will spend three pages telling us what she had for breakfast. He has become so bogged down in the unimportant details of the politics of slave revolts in Mereen that he may never get himself out.
People have said that the show stopped being good after it ran out of written source material. That is not true. The books stopped being good after Book Three. The show actually managed to take the goods parts of Books Four and Five and squeeze a couple seasons of really excellent television out of them, by focusing on the good elements and jettisoning the various descriptions of how to roast a pheasant.
But aside from these problems of over-writing (this is common when authors become global successes - no editor wants to give them honest feedback any more so their manuscripts start to suffer; see: J.K. Rowling), there are structural problems with where Martin has taken his stories in the book and they, along with piss-poor execution, contributed to the disappointing final seasons of the show.
The first and most critical issue is that Martin became almost obsessed with subverting genre conventions and expectations, to the point where it became a detriment to the story. This all starts with Ned’s shocking execution, which is a stroke of genius on the page. As we are reading A Game of Thrones, the first book in the series, we are being conditioned to assume that Ned Stark is the hero, and typically the hero doesn’t die. Sure, the world of Westeros is a more morally complex place than your average high fantasy realm, but nevertheless the hero doesn’t die. Then Martin kills him, suddenly and shockingly. That’s part of the genius of Game of Thrones. It doesn’t do what you think it will, and that ending couldn’t have made that any more clear.
But now Martin has a problem, which is that he’s played his trump card in the first book. How can he top that? Well, realistically he can’t, because now we as the audience know this is a world that doesn’t play by the rules of the genre, and where anything can happen. But he tries anyway, in the least creative way possible - by killing more and more main characters unexpectedly. He does this in the Red Wedding, which was kind of like Ned’s execution but on a larger scale. And then he keeps doing it, even in the face of diminishing returns.
By the time Jon gets knifed in the back at the end of Book Five, I was rolling my eyes. Clearly this was just naked pandering to cliff-hangerism. It felt almost insulting. I couldn’t possibly have cared less at that point. And that is where the show inherited this structural defect of constantly trying to one-up the shocking twist that came before, even when the twist was implausible or not good or too much. Surely, the execution could have been better in many cases, but this part of Game of Thrones was baked into the structure from the start.
Dany’s heel turn was meant to be yet another such shocking twist, one that up-ended the conventional expectation that she and Jon were our two heroes. That might have worked in theory, but it surely didn’t work the way it was brought off by HBO. And the final culmination of this obsession is Bran becoming King. It’s supposed to be one last winking “You didn’t see that one comin’ did ya?” But it’s a terrible, terrible twist. And that is not all the show’s fault. It’s part of the DNA of the books.
I am as disappointed as anyone in how the show ended. It was thoroughly bad in every way that counted. But I think it’s important to at least acknowledge that Martin’s books have major problems with them, and the show was actually able to overcome some of those to give us some very good seasons of television.
Ultimately, the thing is just so big and unwieldy it has been consumed by its own mass, fallen in on itself like a dying star. Martin originally planned for a trilogy (as did, you guessed it, Robert Jordan). He was going to do a jump-cut from the end of the civil war to 5 years later. But then he decided it would be better to spend thousands of pages fleshing out the time in between, and in that intervening space between things that actually mattered he got lost.
HBO tried to outrun that same fate, to escape the gravitational pull of mega-global success and huge star contracts and fan expectations and the structural demands of increasingly absurd plot twists. But in the end, it couldn’t pull it off and it was eventually destroyed by its own excesses as surely as the Doom of Valyria had ended another vainglorious empire.