With HBO’s Game of Thrones being perhaps the biggest pop culture television phenomenon of the past decade, all of the close examination and scrutiny that came with it in its final year made sense. The eighth and final season has gone, and one quick scroll through a social media feed or IMDb user ratings indicate general dissatisfaction. Rushed character development, general misogyny, a shortened episode count, and a coffee cup are common talking points. At its barest bones, a lack of logic is the core reason behind every crumbling pillar of this behemoth structure that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
It would be fair to suggest that George R.R. Martin, infamously behind on completing the A Song of Ice and Fire book series that Game of Thrones is based off of, shares part of the blame; it’s hard to build something when the blueprints given are incomplete. As the series divulged from the books beginning in season five, the stories became streamlined and simplified to an unbelievable degree. Every “Inside” featurette from Benioff and Weiss after each episode became comedic fodder. But most disappointing to the fans was probably their complicated theories and predictions ultimately going nowhere; supposed clues became red herrings, and Twitter feeds every Sunday night were akin to a virtual riot.
There is no method to be found within the madness and instead, we must explore the logic behind the illogic behind the final seasons of Game of Thrones.
Most analyses of recent Game of Thrones focus on the differences between “plotting” and “pantsing.” The former has connotations of being more elaborate, with many plotters being more character-focused. As Martin crafted such an intricate world with complicated characters and dense backstories, we can probably consider the books and early Thrones to be more plotting than the latter.
“Pantsing” might put the focus first on certain plot events, images, or specific sequences and build from there. Many books, films, shows, and games use this to great effect—look at any action movie with action-packed action sequences. But in going this route, Weiss and Benioff betrayed the intricate thematic language and rhythm of their own earlier work, and what resulted were massive events that should have been affecting, but instead were tainted by a lack of logic or character reasoning behind it.
No longer do characters drive the plot of the show—instead, they are wrangled around, acting out of character to serve whatever plot points meet them at the end. Even when a plan makes little sense and should go awry, they succeed because that’s what the plot points require them to do. Season seven, the first shortened season, had some egregious examples: a single, giant crossbow is presented as a solution for Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons to an incredulous TV audience, but against all odds, it is effective for plot purposes. A hunt for a Wight beyond the Wall as proof of the army of the dead to Queen Cersei Lannister is a ridiculous idea, with audiences questioning every decision made on screen, yet geography, time, and common sense are defied to tie everything together for the season finale.
Perhaps these monumental developments that required pantsing are soon to happen in the book: the burning of poor Shireen Baratheon, the Hodor reveal, the giant crossbow dragon-killing Scorpions, the destruction of all White Walkers at the hands of Arya Stark, the end of the Great War as a midpoint with a sacking of a “mad” Daenerys as a climax, and Bran Stark as the new King are plot points that Martin gave to Benioff and Weiss. They all mostly sounded fine on paper, and could work in a longer story. For all of it to work within the final show, however, all of the characters needed to jump through a hilarious number of hoops.
That isn’t to say that the television writers disliked the characters in anyway; in fact, they might love some of them too much. Before “The Long Night” angered many fans with how it depicted the Battle of Winterfell, the first two episodes of the final season already felt odd in a particular regard: they felt like pure fan service. That is a double-edged sword to play with—fan service is probably most appropriate only during a farewell season, but it runs the risk of pandering, and turning characters into caricatures of themselves. Faster than anyone on the show, Tormund Giantsbane became an irritating goofball; Podrick became a sitcom character with background gags; Bronn took up screen time for no reason, justified by a flimsy plot line where he is tasked with assassinating the only two people who had ever cared for him. Just look at the final Small Council line-up of Tyrion, Bronn, Samwell, Davos, and Brienne in the finale—what are half of them practically doing there other than pleasing their fanbases?
Meanwhile, the essential characters are floundering about. The once formidable mind of Tyrion makes goof after goof in seasons 7 and 8, because the plot required his incompetence. Jon Snow is diminished even more to a one-note brooding character, with a different reoccurring stock line each season (“You are my queen” being the final one of these). Arya Stark never uses her unique abilities gained throughout the show during the most essential events, almost as if the writers are afraid to add any complicated elements to their firm plot points. Sansa Stark constantly questions Daenerys to create drama, with little justification—until Daenerys takes her own contrived character turn.
Every episode of season 8 seemed to have its own different controversy, and the fan backlash came at a peak with episode 5, “The Bells.” After losing a dragon to unusually accurate Scorpion bow shots in an absurd sequence, Daenerys is able to dispatch not only all of Cersei’s forces, but every single Scorpion in a sequence that might just be as absurd, if only for the inconsistency. As King’s Landing surrenders, Dany takes a vengeful route and burns the city, with hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children horrifically perishing to her dragonfire. To many fans, this was not the Daenerys, the Breaker of Chains, etc., that they had been invested in for years. This was a poor attempt at “subverting expectations,” Twitter cried out.
To that, I say that this turn by Dany was always meant to be—and that is actually why it bothers me quite a bit.
A particularly painful scene in the series finale was a conversation between Jon Snow and a captive Tyrion Lannister. It is full of obvious callbacks and references to the show’s past, and Tyrion lists not only his own major plot developments, but that of Daenerys, as if though the writers are backtracking and justifying their own decisions with Wikipedia citations pointing to previous show events. Ultimately, I do not believe that foreshadowing is the same as build-up; there may have been signs of Daenerys carrying the “Fire and Blood” mantra of her family, but the turn as depicted on-screen had little to carry it. Was the attack based on her promise to rule of fear, a punishment for not being loved? We may never know as the characters, Dany included, give non-answers in the final episode; any precise explanations from defenders are just jumping through the same logical hoops as the characters themselves. Still, the turn was heavily telegraphed by the worries of her advisors in the episode before, so to see her actually carry out such a massacre was surprisingly predictable, and actually quite boring to watch.
Rather than subvert my expectations of some unnecessary massacre, the writers subverted my expectations by not subverting my expectations and taking an obvious route.
Enter poor Jaime Lannister, who made me feel completely foolish by the end of “The Bells.” Much was said about the episode before, where he left his newfound lover Ser Brienne of Tarth crying, after giving a speech about how his sister Cersei is hateful and so is he. While it registered to many as Jaime going back to Cersei out of love, I felt the language was vague enough to possibly have a double meaning—the way Jaime’s monologue instantly registered to me was that it was meant to mislead, and in fact, Jaime was leaving to get rid of the source of his hateful nature. Alas, the show again took the obvious route and doing the simplest thing possible, with Jaime and Cersei sharing one last bizarre and unearned (incestuous) romantic scene. While many are adverse to “subverting expectations,” I desperately wanted some surprises and twists in Thrones and I never quite got them.
And perhaps it’s my fault for expecting anything more complicated. Now I know how many of the fans with their theories felt, the ones who thought Arya would play tricks with her faces, or that the Night King had any sort of significance, or something to do with that “Azor Ahai” legend the book readers will go on about. While the remaining books are sure to get even more complicated, with so many more plot lines and characters, the final seasons of Game of Thrones went in the opposite direction, funneling all of the characters into central locations, performing fan service, and ultimately abandoning the political intrigue of seasons past.
While David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, “D&D” for short, could very well be in hiding to avoid the negativity, I’m not one to completely lay the blame on them. This was a complicated show to run, and I can’t imagine too many creatives willing to stick with the same job for a decade or more. Hollywood calls for them (Lucasfilm, to be specific), and they needed to move on. Many are quick to point out that Benioff was a co-writer of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and I fire back that he also wrote the novel and adapted screenplay for 25th Hour, which Spike Lee directed. Weiss and Benioff are accomplished novel writers on their own, and it would be disingenuous to not credit them for the show’s early success, especially given that neither of them had a background in television before Thrones.
I was looking back to some favorite past scenes of the show, with a favorite of mine being the “knowledge is power” scene between Littlefinger and Cersei from season 2, episode 1. To my surprise, that was an original scene that D&D wrote for the show, with no equivalent in the books. Even post-book Thrones had some scenes I was giddy about, such as a season 7 scene of Daenerys grilling Varys. “Incompetence should not be rewarded with blind loyalty,” Varys says to defend himself. It is a lovely scene that helps to define Varys—and of course, is later betrayed in season 8 when Varys acts irrationally and gets, well, literally grilled by Dany. Ultimately, these two nerdy-looking white dudes you see after every episode deserve credit for a lot of the good as well as a lot of the bad.
Despite their jumps in logic as they tried to expedite their commitment to this television show, we should all be accepting that Game of Thrones is done. Petitions to redo the final season with different writers are not only disrespectful towards all involved in the show, but completely asinine and impractical. Thrones should remain as is—it shouldn’t matter to anyone’s life how it ended. If anything, it should be completely untouched, if only to be a cautionary tale for all of the faults it accumulated during its eight season run.
Neither plotting nor pantsing is the “correct” way to tell a story, but switching from one to another could have major ramifications. But no matter what, staying true to logic, both internally within the fictional world and externally with common sense in the real world, is essential. Even with all of the amazing craftsmenship and acting on screen, the death of logic is the death of the story.