A Song of Ice and Disappointment

Game of Thrones bannerHow one of modern fiction’s most ambitious, brilliant failures gave rise to Game of Thrones, television’s most ambitious, brilliant failure

So that’s it, then.

After a twenty-three-year wait, the world finally knows what happens at the end of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R R Martin’s world-famous fantasy series which spawned the HBO television epic Game of Thrones. On 19th May, the very last episode of Game of Thrones aired, and the story came to an end.

Except it’s not as neat as that.

The vast fanbase took many years of reading and watching and passionate speculation to get to this point, but 2019 hasn’t provided the satisfying conclusion to their Westeros experience that they hoped for. Firstly, there are still (at least) two books in the series to come. And secondly, a very large number of viewers feel outraged and betrayed by the show’s final episodes. Fans are in uproar, and the legacy of the TV show is tarnished.

The story of Game of Thrones and the Ice and Fire books is fascinating – not just the tale of Starks, Lannisters and Targaryens, but the story of the franchise itself. Its ambition was second to none; its execution, at first, was majestic and triumphant. And the deeper it carried us into the fantasy saga, the greater the problems became. This is my spoiler-heavy verdict on what went wrong.

A Game of Thrones

Part 1: Brilliant Beginnings

Ice and Fire Books 1-3; Game of Thrones Seasons 1-4

A Game of Thrones was published in August 1996. It would become the first book in Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, and it would eventually give its name to the television show, Game of Thrones. Its sequel came out in 1998, and Book Three was released in 2000. With hindsight, this brisk publishing schedule is striking.

What stands out about these books is their ambition. Martin was constructing a vast world, refusing to accept conventional limits to the number of characters he included. A crucial technique he used to help the reader remember all of them was the constant, obsessive use of family sigils, or crests, belonging to most of the hundreds of characters. The sigils provide a roadmap through this wantonly sprawling universe, and their symbolism and significance is continuously rammed home. The Mormonts are bears, Ser Davos is an onion, the Martells are vipers, and so on, and so on.

“This was a world, we learned, where heroes will not necessarily win and their stories can be abruptly cut short.”

The other way Martin oriented readers was by telling the story from certain characters’ points of view. We get to know this select group of central characters far better than the supporting cast. Each of them has a particular hang-up, which they spend a large amount of their time angsting about: Jon thinks about being a bastard, Tyrion thinks about being a dwarf, Sansa thinks about her dream of becoming a princess, etcetera. The story is largely driven by the way the point-of-view (POV) characters grapple with their respective hang-ups. The sigils and the hang-ups serve as mnemonic techniques to stop the readers from getting lost.

Even more significant than the sheer scale of the books was the way they drew on the grit and savagery of medieval history, instead of fantasy’s traditional dependence on the romance of myth. This was a world, we learned, where heroes will not necessarily win and their stories can be abruptly cut short. In fact, the very qualities that make them heroes – nobility, physical courage, a strong moral code – leave them vulnerable to more ruthless political operatives. Medieval wars and politics were nasty and pulled no punches, so the books depict this. The three standout shocking moments in the first three books are probably Eddard Stark’s execution, the Red Wedding where his wife and eldest son are murdered, and the unexpectedly sudden death of the dashing Oberyn Martell in a duel.

A Song of Ice and Fire sigils
A wallpaper displaying just a sample of the Westerosi sigils the reader is supposed to remember

The result was an engaging story that was complex in terms of both its plot and the moral universe of its characters. And in 2006, the books captured the imaginations of two people in particular: David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, who eventually adapted the series as an HBO show called Game of Thrones. This was the only medium that had a chance of successfully adapting the source material: ten hours of screen-time per book, on a platform that allowed for sex, blood and huge budgets, were necessary to do justice to Martin’s massive books.

“The show got off to such a rocky start that the original, terrible Game of Thrones pilot had to be almost entirely re-shot.”

And for the first few years, it seemed like the perfect fit. Game of Thrones seasons one to four were a tremendous success and a global phenomenon. The reviews got better with each year – the Rotten Tomatoes score for Game of Thrones climbed from 91% to 96% to 96% to 97% – and viewer numbers climbed as well, from 2.2 million viewers when the first episode aired, to 7.2 million in season 4.  The constraints of the show streamlined the books into something less unwieldy and more pacey. Passages about genealogy of obscure Westerosi families were cut back, certain characters were cunningly combined (such as Gendry and Edric Storm) to simplify and strengthen the narrative, and a first-rate cast brought Martin’s world to life. Everything seemed to be going as well as could be.

Game of Thrones became known for its shocking twists. David Benioff said of the books, “We fell in love with the brutality of the narrative: no one is ever safe.”  But in reality, one of the great successes of the TV show was that the sudden character deaths tended to be a lot more shocking onscreen than on the page. In the books they were excellent plot twists, but they weren’t revolutionary or traumatic. An adult novel about the violence of politics was always going to have casualties. Only one of the eight recurring-POV characters perished in Book One: the sensible father-figure who represented the good old days of law and order. This was hardly unprecedented writing. It certainly wasn’t as unprecedented as the shock of having Sean Bean, the lead actor in an HBO TV series, have his head chopped off just nine episodes in.

Game of Thrones: Ned Stark death

Another advantage that the show has, in terms of shock-value, is that the story is not told from certain characters’ POV. As a result, non-POV characters get more of the spotlight, and it’s much harder to tell who is “safe” and who isn’t. Oberyn Martell is a good example of this: his death is surprising, but not appalling in the same way that it is in the show. And as for the Red Wedding… In Game of Thrones, this is the most shocking moment of all: three noble-hearted, likeable characters are suddenly butchered. In the Ice and Fire books, this slaughter is less awful for three reasons. One: Robb Stark’s wife (who is a much less important character in the books) isn’t present, and she therefore survives – nor is she pregnant, in any case. Two: Robb Stark himself is not a POV character, so his death hits the reader less hard. Three: Catelyn Stark’s death turns out to be temporary. The real shocking twist in Book Three is when Catelyn returns, resurrected, ready to bring destruction down upon her enemies. This was the great cliffhanger at the end of those first three books.

But looking back, many of the cracks were already there. The show’s storytelling efficiencies disguised Martin’s increasing tendency to ramble a bit. For example, when it aired on television, it was difficult to miss the chapters in Books Two and Three in which Arya, Gendry and Hot Pie wander aimlessly around the Riverlands. Nor was the adaptation perfect. The conversion of Book Three into two seasons meant that several character arcs suffered. For much of Season Four, Jon Snow, Sam Tarly, Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth are left hanging around, waiting for their next piece of plot to arrive, because Game of Thrones Season Three had covered most of their Ice and Fire Book Three storyline already. And the show hit its biggest moment of controversy when it appeared to turn a sex scene from the books into an entirely gratuitous rape scene – and the men who filmed it didn’t even seem to realise they were doing it.

What’s more – and this is often overlooked – the show got off to such a rocky start that the original, terrible Game of Thrones pilot had to be almost entirely re-shot. Benioff and Weiss, by their own admission, completely messed up their first attempt at the show, and the showrunners needed some brutal advice before they could fix it. The potential of the pair to completely misjudge their material was there from the start.

But by the end of Season Four, they’d cracked it, right?


Part 2: Middle-Act Wobbles

Ice and Fire Books 4-5; Game of Thrones Seasons 5-6

By 2006, when Benioff and Weiss were reading A Song of Ice and Fire, the first major elephant had arrived in the room. In 2005, the fourth book had finally been released – after a wait of five years, which was longer than the waiting-times for Books Two and Three put together. It was called A Feast for Crows, but it might more aptly be titled Meanwhile, in the More Boring Parts of Westeros…

For viewers of the show to appreciate what a serious misstep this book was, I only need to say two things. First: Daenerys, Jon and Tyrion are absent from the 753-page book. Second: Game of Thrones Seasons Three and Four cover Book Three. Season Five covers Book Five. Book Four was so sparse that it does not have a corresponding TV season.

Benioff and Weiss did salvage some of the material and shove it into Seasons Four and Five. But overall, it’s hard not to see Book Four as a failure. There was “a sense in A Feast for Crows that Martin had lost his way.” The meandering storylines are comparatively dull, and we are left trapped with the idiosyncrasies of Martin’s writing style. In the absence of a strong plot, the sigils, the deliberately archaising language and the characters’ hang-ups all begin to grate. As the POV characters mope, the reader starts wishing that Sam, Brienne and the others would just get over themselves.

Book Five arrived in 2011, at about the same time as the HBO show began airing; and it was something of a return to form. But after a decade of waiting for a properly satisfying addition to A Song of Ice and Fire, a lot of goodwill had been used up. When Book Five’s publication date was finally announced, an excellent New Yorker piece looked at the upset and sense of betrayal that had been felt by many fans in the meantime. And in many ways, as fun as Book Five was, it confirmed the growing sense that Martin had lost control of his own story.

“The biggest problem with A Song of Ice and Fire, which has caused endless difficulties for the books and also the show, is George R R Martin’s reluctance to kill off enough characters.”

It is very hard to read the thousand pages of A Dance with Dragons and believe that two more eight-hundred-page books will bring the entire story to a satisfying conclusion that wraps up all the loose ends. A Song of Ice and Fire is a juggernaut, with no sense that its storylines are now turning for home and beginning to resolve their countless narrative questions. The story is so bloated that readers can understand why Martin agreed with his publishers to strip out some of the storylines and release them as Book Four.

A controversial statement: the biggest problem with A Song of Ice and Fire, which has caused endless difficulties for the books and also the show, is George R R Martin’s reluctance to kill off enough characters. Martin’s reputation for brutality towards his major characters is legendary, and also misplaced: he’s far too soft.

Game of Thrones: Jon fighting
A major character in battle: not in as much peril as you’d think

Bear with me. Every chapter in Martin’s series is written from a specific character’s point of view. By the end of Book Five, we have encountered twenty-four characters who get POV chapters (not counting prologues and epilogues, which are invariably an opportunity to kill off a very minor character). The full list is Bran, Catelyn, Eddard, Daenerys, Jon Snow, Arya, Sansa, Tyrion, Davos, Theon, Jaime, Sam, Brienne, Cersei, Aeron Greyjoy, Victarion Greyjoy, Arys Oakheart, Melisandre, Arianne Martell, Quentyn Martell, Areo Hotah, Ser Barristan Selmy, Jon Connington and Asha Greyjoy.

To be clear: Book One introduced eight recurring POV characters – a manageable number. Books Two and Three introduced two more each. Book Four introduced eight more, and Book Five added a further four. Of these twenty-four, a grand total of three – three – have been killed off. Eddard, Ser Arys and Quentyn have died, meaning that currently not a single POV character who appears in multiple books has perished. In fact, even book-readers might struggle to remember who Ser Arys Oakheart even is. (He gets one chapter, set in Dorne. That’s it.) Neither Ser Arys nor Quentyn were important enough to appear on the TV show.

Admittedly Catelyn is also sort-of dead, but she’s still around in the story and doing stuff (more on this in a moment). And I appreciate that the readers last saw Jon Snow getting murdered on the Wall, but it doesn’t require spoilers from the show to know he’ll be back. Not only is Jon nowhere near a coherent end to his storyline – but it has been definitively established from the prologue of Book Five that Jon is a Warg, and therefore his worst-case scenario is that he’ll have to spend a few chapters inside the body of his direwolf Ghost.

Jon Snow dead
Even without spoilers, we all know he’s going to be fine

George R R Martin created a world designed to constantly spawn new characters and new levels of intrigue, but his lack of ruthlessness with his major characters has led to too much centrifuge. Sure, a lot of supporting characters die all the time, but that doesn’t alleviate the fundamental problem. We now have twenty-one POV characters roaming Martin’s sprawling world, which is too many to corral into a unified story. The central tale has splintered, and not only have Dorne and the Iron Islands appeared, but there is a new Targaryen pretender invading Westeros, a web of mercenary intrigue enveloping the storylines in the east, and the North is bogged down by political intrigue and a mysterious assassin. It’s unclear where any of this is going, and almost all of this was cut from the TV show.

The show was ruthless where Martin was self-indulgent. Season Five was brutally efficient with the twelve new POV characters from Books Four and Five. Six of them were simply cut; two of them were unceremoniously killed off (Ser Barristan in Season Five and Areo Hotah in Season Six); and only the four already well-established characters – Brienne, Cersei, Melisandre and Asha Greyjoy – were paid any attention.

Game of Thrones: Yara Greyjoy
She’s Yara Greyjoy in the show, to make it that little bit more confusing

Here we come to a fundamental problem of Books Four and Five. At first, delayed gratification was part of what got readers addicted. When would Daenerys reach Westeros? How much more suffering did Arya and Sansa have to endure before things started to look up? When would the Others reach the Wall, and when would the inhabitants of Westeros wake up to the threat?

In Books Four and Five, this delayed gratification became exasperating. Still no sign of the Others reaching the human realms. Still no deployment of the dragons in an actual battle. Literally dozens of supporting characters with agendas of their own, whose motives we don’t yet understand. Almost no understanding of what narrative purpose it served to resurrect Catelyn. Then… nothing. She pops up very briefly in Book Four, but on the whole, readers have been waiting for two decades to understand what the point was of bringing Catelyn back. The prologue of Book Four ends with a cliffhanger – which has yet to be addressed eighteen hundred pages later, when Book Five wraps up.

In other words, Benioff and Weiss reached a point where the material for their wildly successful TV series was collapsing under its own weight. What was more, it became clear that the TV show was going to overtake the books. They had to try to carry the story through this flawed mess. And they were only partly successful.

They had no choice but to prune rigorously. Most of the new storylines from Books Four and Five were discarded, or dealt with perfunctorily. In Season Five, Benioff and Weiss essentially rewrote the Dorne storyline in an attempt to make it both faster and – by inserting Jaime Lannister and Bronn of the Blackwater – more relevant to the central plot. In the books, the Dorne storyline seemed promising but lacking enough space to really get going. In the show, its limited screen-time made it seem flimsy, lacking depth and heart. Apparently realising that the Dorne plot was a non-starter, the writers gutted it in Season Six (and eventually disposed of it altogether at the start of Season Seven).

Bronn and Jaime in Dorne
Nice try

The other major new realm – the Iron Islands – was dealt with in Season Six, and given similarly short shrift. Two of Theon and Asha’s uncles were whitewashed from the story, and the third, the sinister Euron Greyjoy, was reduced to a cartoonish villain whose motivation seemed to be that he thought being evil was fun.

Book-readers were forced to wonder: if Benioff and Weiss didn’t feel the need to introduce Jon Connington, Aegon Targaryen, Arianne Martell or Victarion Greyjoy, did that mean that their storylines in the books were unnecessary padding that wouldn’t amount to anything? Were the showrunners setting up a radically different finale? Or – the third and, for diehard fans, possibly the most alarming option – was Martin so lost in his story that even he didn’t know the answers, forcing the showrunners to cobble their own story together?

Because at the end of Season Five, something had changed. It was 2015, and four years had passed since Martin had published a book. The show-writers were on their own now. Sure, they said that Martin had told them the ending of the story, but being given a few bullet points and having to join the dots was not at all the same thing as taking a thousand-page book and reproducing it as a ten-episode season.

“It felt as though Benioff and Weiss were in a hurry to reach the end. In fact, they turned down HBO’s offer of as much time and resources as they wanted.”

Season Six often gave the impression that the writers were at the point of consciously shrinking their behemoth just to make the task manageable. Characters were steadily killed off, often with little regard for what they had brought to the story in the first place. In my personal opinion, Brynden Tully, Osha the Wildling and Loras Tyrell were given particularly pointless deaths that made it feel like the writers didn’t care anymore. The show was gearing up for its Stark-Lannister-Targaryen climax, and the depth that had once made the story so striking – and which Martin had leaned too far into – was now a hindrance for Benioff and Weiss.

The final two episodes of Season Six were confirmation of this. They are surely the best-directed consecutive pair of episodes in the whole show – the two-episode sequence of Game of Thrones that Benioff said he was proudest of –  but he and Weiss were now taking shortcuts that went against everything the show had once stood for. I wrote at the time about how the visual spectacle of the Battle of the Bastards was based on such lazy storytelling that it undermined the credibility of the entire show. Jon Snow did something immensely stupid, and was rewarded by being made King of the North. In the earlier seasons, choices had consequences. Now Jon was able to shrug off his trauma – and his disastrous mistake, which had cost hundreds of lives – overnight. Then in the season finale, Cersei rounded up all the loose ends and intriguing storylines of King’s Landing, and got rid of them in one fell swoop. It was gloriously brutal, but it meant that five seasons of politicking came to an abrupt end, as though it had only ever been an entertaining diversion from the real story.

And the real story was finally on the move: the end of the episode showed Daenerys Targaryen sailing towards Westeros with her fleet. But for absolutely no reason, her advisor Lord Varys – who had been in Dorne ten minutes earlier – was standing next to her on the deck of her ship. There was no need to put him there. He didn’t even have any lines. His presence achieved just one thing: to disrupt the carefully-nurtured logic that this world was massive and journeys took a very long time.

Varys with Dany
It would have been so easy not to put Varys in this scene

Those two episodes breached several crucial rules of Game of Thrones: every choice has a consequence. Nothing comes easily. A small misjudgement can ruin everything for a character. This story is wider than the tale of the three central families. And travelling great distances is really, really hard. It felt as though Benioff and Weiss were in a hurry to reach the end. In fact, they turned down HBO’s offer of as much time and resources as they wanted, insisting that they only needed thirteen more episodes to wrap up the saga. Thirteen episodes, then, to recover from a wobbly couple of seasons and make it all worthwhile.


Part 3: The Wheels Come Off

Game of Thrones Seasons 7-8

It is eight years since the most recent book in A Song of Ice and Fire was released. In the meantime, George R R Martin has written various companion books, executive-produced a television series called Nightflyers, and worked on various other projects such as the Wild Cards superhero series. Of Book Six, The Winds of Winter, there is notoriously little sign. This has angered many, and the spat has caused a great deal of controversy – a decade ago, it led Neil Gaiman to write an emphatic online response defending Martin’s right to do whatever he wants.

But if we set aside the debate about whether Martin “owes” his readers the final two books of the series, we have to face the stark fact (heheh, Stark) that the book series seems to have ground to a halt. Martin’s method of letting the story grow naturally has got out of hand, and he has lost control of his creation. There are too many characters and no clear way forward – unless Martin follows the route of Benioff and Weiss and starts tearing out whole storylines in a bid to simplify the narrative. If he continues with his current method, new plotlines will continue to pop up like an infinitely-expanding fractal. But it may be too late for Martin to find a way of reining in the world that he has unleashed. The books may never be finished, not because Martin is procrastinating but because he has set himself an impossible task.

The show, therefore, was asked to accomplish something that its source material might never be able to do. Benioff and Weiss had signed up to adapt a vigorous, grandiose story that looked full of life – but by 2017, there seemed to be a very real risk that the novel series had petered out. Suddenly they had to work everything out for themselves. What they had was a set of instructions about what should happen at the end to the major characters. What they didn’t have was the nuanced characterisation, memorable dialogue, pivotal scenes and the sense of depth that the books had provided. And, having turned down the offer of telling their ending over twenty or even thirty episodes, they tried to pull it off in just thirteen.

“When it finally aired, the sense of letdown was soon palpable across the internet.”

This meant a rapid succession of spectacular set-pieces – a dragon attack in Season Seven Episode Four, an encounter with the full army of the dead in Season Seven Episode Six, the Battle of Winterfell in Season Eight Episode Three, and the fall of King’s Landing in Season Eight Episode Five. And instead of the careful build-ups and character-driven stories that had set up earlier climaxes, the writers resorted to contrived manoeuvres that brought the characters as quickly as possible to the next place they needed to be in the story.

This was perhaps inevitable within the very tight screen-time constraints that Benioff and Weiss had given themselves. And to be fair to them, the alternative was to pad out the handful of fixed points they had been given, which must have seemed like spreading their material very thin indeed when compared with the overwhelming reams they had previously been working with. Jon didn’t have much to say for himself, Daenerys was losing her human warmth, Cersei had nothing left to do, Sansa’s arc was almost complete, and the showrunners didn’t know how to make Tyrion the cunning, conflicted antihero that he is in the books. What was more, their ultimate villain, the Night King, was mute, and the future king, Bran, could not sustain a conversation. The idea of writing several more hours’ worth of material for these characters – with no more help from Martin – must have been too daunting.

The show came to feel very different from what it had been when this guy was still around

But the result of the rush was that characters acted erratically; trifling things like consequences, consistency and geography ceased to matter; and perfunctory plot developments and story arcs let down tension that had been building for up to eight years. For example, the two most interesting and intelligent schemers on the show, Varys and Littlefinger, both perished attempting to execute strategies that felt both strangely weak and embarrassingly botched. Tyrion’s much-vaunted intelligence fluctuated wildly, but mainly went downhill, until I could no longer remember why anyone had listened to him since Season Three. Then there was Jaime, whose redemption arc was suddenly discarded to run back to Cersei – a storyline that could have been powerfully tragic if the viewer was given the space to believe in it, but which instead felt confusing and wrong. To go through every individual instance would take too long, though, so I will focus on the most fundamental issues.

“After all the buildup, Benioff and Weiss dumped the White Walkers at the first real opportunity, as though they had never mattered all that much in the first place.”

By this point, the show had lost an important illusion about the overall shape of the story. Back in the Red Wedding days, there was a sense that nobody was safe: anybody could be killed off at any time, because the story was about ruthless political manoeuvrings rather than the exploits of a few chosen heroes. With hindsight, this was not actually the case.

Here is a description of Game of Thrones which appears to have no spoilers, but which actually nullifies the element of randomness and shock to almost nothing. “Game of Thrones is a story about three sets of siblings: the seven children who grew up in the Stark household, two of whom do not carry the surname of Stark; the three Lannister siblings who find themselves at the heart of the kingdom’s royal intrigues; and Daenerys Targaryen, whose quest towards the throne takes place in the shadow of the very different legacies left by her two dead brothers.”

Nine of these eleven “siblings” make it alive to Season Seven, and none of them ever seem in much danger as they comfortably survive to Season Eight. Only Robb Stark (whose importance, I have said, was inflated in the show) and the insignificant Rickon Stark have died so far. Martin’s refusal to kill off any key characters finally became a problem that even the show couldn’t solve.

Game of Thrones: Theon
Yes, I’ve counted Theon as a Stark sibling. He totally counts.

Season Six was really where the “nobody is safe” illusion ended, when Jon Snow was resurrected because it turned out that some characters really were too important to kill off, and when it became clear that the Baratheons, Tyrells, Greyjoys, Martells, Boltons and Tullys were all disposable in a way that the three central families were not. By Seasons Seven and Eight, the rules felt safer and more traditional, and the plot armour was nakedly obvious. In Season Seven Episode Five, a group of expeditionaries set off on a perilous journey north of the Wall: six characters with clearly-signposted importance to the story, one character with no such protection, and several extras. At the end of the next episode, guess which six made it back?

Off they go

Even worse came during the climactic Battle of Winterfell in Season Eight, when Jaime, Brienne, Davos, Tormund, Sam, Gendry, Podrick and Grey Worm were part of the army trying to defend the courtyard. By the end of the battle, nobody in the courtyard was left alive… except for the eight named characters, who were all completely fine. Even Sam, who had spent most of the battle flailing on the ground and crying. And now that we’re on the subject of the Battle of Winterfell…

The third episode of Season Eight was one of the most hyped moments in television history. And when it finally aired, the sense of letdown was soon palpable across the internet (here is one of the best takes). There were problems with the episode itself, such as its infamous darkness that made it hard to see what was going on, and the sense that the heroes’ strategy was badly thought-through. But much more significant was the undermining of the entire White Walker storyline that had underpinned the show from the very first scene.

The viewers had been watching a show about a world where nothing comes easily, and heroes do not in fact unite to save the day against one-dimensional villains. Benioff himself had said, “How come in fantasy worlds good always triumphs and evil suffers resounding defeat? …George brought a measure of harsh realism to high fantasy. He introduced gray tones into a black and white universe.”   Fans had looked forward to some great, meaningful revelation about the White Walkers, and they had constructed elaborate, compelling theories about what was about to happen. Instead, the Night King, Viserion, every single White Walker and the entire army of the dead perished in their very first battle south of the Wall. It was far more Luke Skywalker versus the Death Star than Robb Stark versus complicated vested interests and harsh political realities.

Game of Thrones: The Night King
The Night King turned out to be a major disappointment

Arya killing the Night King was the right story move, but her victory felt cheap. After all the buildup, Benioff and Weiss dumped the White Walkers at the first real opportunity, as though they had never mattered all that much in the first place. In fact, the White Walkers themselves came out of the episode even more neutered than the Night King and his wights. The White Walkers – those sinister shadowy figures terrifyingly glimpsed about once per season – did nothing whatsoever in the battle, letting their robotic minions do the fighting for them. And then it turned out that they were robotic minions themselves, with no agency or ability to survive without the Night King. So that was the end of that storyline. Once the existential struggle was dealt with more quickly and easily than anyone could have predicted, the petty struggle for the Iron Throne could resume.

And so the viewers hurtled into the final act. We still expected the great struggle between Cersei and Daenerys, and between themselves and their respective demons, that the show had been signalling since the early seasons. Instead, it turned out that Cersei had nothing interesting left to do except wait to be killed by falling masonry.

Daenerys had a little bit more to do, but not much – she went mad, as many had predicted, and burned King’s Landing; but this crucial character development was rushed so badly that her emergence as a monster felt contrived and arbitrary. And then she died without ever being confronted with the horror of what she had done, with no drama or tension on her part. (Admittedly it was an intense and emotional moment for Jon, but the drama in their final scene together was entirely one-sided.)

Game of Thrones: Jon Snow killing Dany
Poor Jon

Instead, we had to endure too much Euron Greyjoy – whose actor, Pilou Asbӕk, struggled in interviews to hide his disappointment with how the character was written.  The most mocked moment of Season Eight was Benioff’s explanation for the scene when Euron’s Iron Fleet abruptly killed one of Dany’s two surviving dragons with impossibly-powerful scorpions. “Dany kind of forgot about the Iron Fleet,” Benioff said, to widespread derision.

Euron’s irritating final fight-scene with Jaime Lannister made such little sense that Asbӕk appeared to ridicule the quality of the writing in an interview. Asked why Euron chose to pick a fight with Jaime rather than try to survive the sack of King’s Landing, Asbӕk replied, “His entire fleet just got burned down by a dragon, that’s pretty devastating for a guy. He’s been swimming several miles in his leather suit, so he’s tired and he doesn’t want to go out on a boat again for a while. And he loves the queen, Cersei, and the queen will always be in love with her brother, Jaime Lannister.”  This elaborate explanation, which doesn’t fit the writing at all, is much more psychologically interesting than the obvious real answer: Benioff and Weiss thought the fight-scene would be cool.

So Game of Thrones limped to its finale, in which Bran was acclaimed king. By this point, the show was going through the motions. All of the lords at Tyrion’s trial, with the sole exception of Sansa, put aside their personal interests, asking the viewers to forget everything we know about this cutthroat world. They agreed almost immediately to subjugate themselves to Ned Stark’s strange crippled son, just because Tyrion made a pretty speech. For one reviewer, Bran’s rushed, easy coronation was the epitome of a season he described as “a betrayal of what made Game of Thrones great in the first place.”

Game of Thrones: Bran Stark
Bran, King of the Six Kingdoms? Yeah, go on then, why not?

For me, the more fundamental problem is that the viewers still don’t understand enough about Bran and his powers to appreciate why he would be a good king. Is he still Bran? Why did he so radically shift personalities between the end of Season Six – when the previous Three-Eyed Raven died, Bran was still recognisably the same character as in earlier seasons – and the beginning of Season Seven? Precisely how omniscient is he? In an interview after Season Seven, the actor of Bran appeared to contradict himself about what Bran does and doesn’t know –  which is fair enough, because the parameters of his power are never clear. Will Bran live for generations, like his predecessor? Will there be another Three-Eyed Raven someday, and will they have a claim to the throne? None of us know.

The status of George R R Martin’s unfinished books resembles the status of the Mueller Report in anti-Trump circles in 2018. They are seen as a silver bullet that may never be released to the public – but which will surely be released soon, and which will surely solve everyone’s problems. But like the Mueller Report, things will probably not turn out to be so simple. If the books are eventually published, we may discover to our disappointment that Martin couldn’t find a satisfactory solution to the problems of his vast, ungainly story. Benioff and Weiss certainly couldn’t find one.


Also on Randall Writing:

Battle of the Bastards
A Bloody Mess: the problem with Battle of the Bastards
Dolorous Edd
Dolorous Edd: A Mournful Tribute
Moral Responsibility in TV
Moral Responsibility in TV
Deleted Winterfell Scene
Deleted Winterfell Scene
Ice and Wire
Ice and Wire
The Hidden Vegan Agenda of Game of Thrones
The Hidden Vegan Agenda of Game of Thrones

Leave a Reply