Game of Thrones: Season Eight

Spoilers for the major plot resolutions in the final season of Game of Thrones.

WTF happens in the final season of Game of Thrones?

The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones includes six episodes of various lengths that wrap up most of the major plot lines left over from season seven. The first three episodes are about defeating the ice zombies, and the last three episodes are about defeating Daenerys Dragon Queen, which is more of a surprise.

Things that happen:

  • All of the good characters go to Winterfell and have cute little scenes to tie their personal stories up before they fight the zombie army. Arya surprises everyone by killing the zombie king, and Jon Snow finds out what we already know – that’s he’s secretly a Targaryen, and Daenerys is his aunt.
  • Jaime really, really looks like he’s going to choose Brienne and/or A Righteous Path, but then he goes back to Cersei and/or Inescapable Corruption.
  • Cersei continues to do nothing, as she has since the end of season six, and then she randomly murders Missandei. Daenerys attacks King’s Landing and Cersei dies when the Red Keep collapses.
  • Daenerys goes full Targ and burns everyone in King’s Landing alive, even after they surrender. Then, she talks to her army in a foreign language, which somehow convinces her advisors that she’s a monster, and Jon stabs her in the heart.
  • We suddenly jump forward in time and Tyrion gives a big speech about how Bran should be the king, and the surviving nobles agree. Bran immediately grants the North its independence, and Sansa becomes its queen.
  • Jon is banished back to the Night’s Watch, but, since it doesn’t exist anymore, he rides north with the Free Folk, instead. Grey Worm sails back to Naath. Arya becomes an explorer.

WTF happened in Game of Thrones fandom because of that?

A lot of people thought the final season wasn’t very good, though they disagreed about why. And then a few people started a mean petition asking HBO to re-shoot the final season. And then the girl from Riverdale said they weren’t allowed to do that. And then people got mad at her. And, true to the sprit of the TV show, everyone was kind of right but also kind of wrong.

What I personally believe to be true is that:

  • Everyone involved in making Game of Thrones worked really hard to produce the final season, and they all have a right to be proud of what they accomplished.
  • It was always impossible that the final season would please everyone.
  • The fact that some portion of the audience was always going to be disappointed by the final season doesn’t mean that none of the criticism levelled at the final season is valid.
  • Receiving mixed feedback about work you exhibit in public is a normal part of doing business as an artist.
  • Making a petition to redo someone else’s TV show is a pretty rude way to share your feedback.

I have some problems with the final season, but I’m not mad at anyone because of it. I just think it’s interesting to look at how the narrative was structured and try to figure out why it didn’t work for me.

How the narrative was structured and why it didn’t work for me

I think the main problem with season eight is that the resolutions to a lot of the major plot lines don’t clearly relate to the narrative tension built in the first seven seasons. I know that sounds like a dry explanation but… there you go.

  • Bran becomes king: There’ve been about a million candidates to rule Westeros, and Bran was never one of them. Going into season eight, the three main contenders were Jon, Dany, and the abstract possibility that it would be no one. The show spent a long time building a case for why any of those endings could or should happen, and then, in the space of one scene, it was suddenly Bran instead.
  • Arya kills the zombie king: Similar to above, Arya was never one of the candidates to kill the zombie king. The show invested seasons worth of story in building up Jon, Dany, and Bran as having special powers uniquely suited to this task. It also spent time developing the idea that maybe everyone in the main cast had a unique role to play, or that an overlooked, un-special character like Sam, or even a total random we haven’t met before, would surprise everyone by saving the day. Instead, Arya just swoops in from a completely unrelated plot line and kills the Night King while nobody else does much at all.
  • Arya never confronts Cersei: Ever since the second season, Arya has been preparing to murder everyone who wronged her family, and Cersei is the last and most important person on the list. We’ve had seasons and seasons of tension over whether Arya will lose herself in her quest for revenge, and the final confrontation with Cersei should be the moment we find out. But then they never meet. Right before she’s about to confront Cersei, Arya realizes that Cersei’s going to die no matter what (because the building’s about to fall down), so she just leaves.
  • Cleganebowl happens just because: A final showdown between The Hound and The Mountain has been foreshadowed from early on. The two brothers hate each other, and The Hound’s personal journey of redemption has gradually put them on opposite sides of the war. But, instead of facing off in a fight that represents something about their divergent values, they decide to fight… because they’re both there, and for no other reason. It serves no purpose and they both die.
  • Cersei gets killed when a building collapses: Cersei’s story wrapped up at the end of season six, and it’s clear that no one had any idea what she should do after that. There were theories that she’d be murdered by one of her brothers, or by Arya, or destroyed through her own cruel choices. Instead, she dies in a really impersonal way rather than because of something she or another character in her orbit has done.

Not every resolution feels out of place. The resolution to Jaime’s story, where he eventually chooses Cersei over Brienne, follows naturally from the tension that’s been building for the past six seasons, even if it sends a message that doesn’t seem super uplifting (i.e., Jaime’s fate was sealed as soon as he was born a Lannister, and nothing was going to change it). Sansa becoming queen of the North follows from her struggle to be taken seriously as a leader, and from the North’s struggle for independence. Sam becoming a Maester, Brienne becoming a knight – lots of side stories wrap up in perfectly satisfying ways. But, for some reason, the resolutions to the series’ biggest plot lines feel like they were randomized so that Bran takes Jon’s destiny, Arya takes Bran’s destiny, a cinderblock takes Arya’s destiny, and The Hound is also there.

The reason that’s a problem, and not just a series of unexpected plot developments, is that it’s not clear what any of those surprises mean within the larger context of the story. Just Write made a really great video about that, and I won’t rehash it here but, basically, it’s hard to see symbolic value in any of these surprises because they seem completely unrelated to the story’s major themes.

The Madness of Queen Dany is its own chest of nightmares

There’s an issue with the narrative tension in Daenerys’ plot line that’s pretty easy to explain: in an attempt to keep the ending a secret, the show waited too long to engage with the possibility that she might end up being evil, and therefore didn’t have time to build tension around it. There’s some foreshadowing for sure, but the idea that she’ll be a tyrant isn’t treated very seriously before season eight, at which point there’s basically no room to explore it before she attacks King’s Landing.

The bigger issue – which has nothing to do with narrative tension – is that the way her story’s framed feels really uncomfortable:

  • The fact that Dany turns out to be evil and dies doesn’t totally resolve or undo any of the weird colonial stuff that happened earlier on in her story. Also, we never hear from anyone in Essos again after she leaves it, or find out how things turned out for the people still there.
  • The main reason the Westerosi hate Daenerys in season eight is because she’s foreign – not because she’s mean or a Targaryen. They also behave coldly to Missandei and Grey Worm, the two named characters she brought with her from Essos. In light of that, it doesn’t feel amazing that the exact moment Jon, Arya, and Tyrion decide that Daenerys is a monster is when they see her talking to her army in a foreign language.
  • The only black woman on the show gets killed for no reason except to make Daenerys extra angry right before she attacks King’s Landing.
  • The show goes out of its way to point out that many of the men in Westeros would prefer Jon as their leader simply because he’s a man. The show doesn’t seem to think that that’s the right attitude for them to have, but it feels weird to set Dany up as the victim of misogyny for the 100th time and then have her be the villain.
  • Daenerys’ story arc is now that she overcame horrific abuse and rose to a position of power despite the best efforts of the men around her, only for the power to immediately corrupt her and make her a danger to the kingdom, such that the men must conspire to kill her.
  • There are some uncomfortable “Don’t trust #metoo!” undertones to Tyrion’s clumsy, longwinded explanation of why Daenerys turned evil, in which he seems to argue that, because everyone rallied around her when she was persecuting rapists, she has now become too powerful and is attacking innocent people.

This season wasn’t awesome about women in general – see: “Heard you got broken in rough,” and Cersei’s inability to do anything during the war besides bang some dude and love her baby – but this plot line feels especially creepy. There’s a reading of it that suggests that it’s fine for white women to dominate people of colour, but that a white woman who threatens white men is a crazy, evil monster who needs to be put down.

I don’t think that’s the intended reading, but I do think there were some careless decisions in how this particular story got told and that the resulting narrative ends up looking kind of bigoted because of that.

In conclusion, I have mixed feelings as per usual

The main thing I wanted out of this season was just to know how the story ends. I get why people are saying they wish the series had gone on longer and taken more time to unpack the finale, but I also think ten years was enough time to spend on Game of Thrones.

I will be very curious to find out how the books end, if and when the books get finished, but, in the meantime, this was a medium-quality conclusion to a largely good TV show. I wish they’d spent a little less time on battles, a little less time trying to surprise everyone, and a little more time having Sansa punch The Hound right in his stupid face, but no one became a lumberjack or anything, so fine.

Image: Game of Thrones; HBO | August 13, 2019