To many viewers, something is off with this season of Game of Thrones. We think we know what it is.
Win or Die
The title of this article might be a bit deceiving. Throughout its run, Game of Thrones‘ popularity has been driven by one, big question:
Who will win?
This lead to nearly a decade of hypotheses, some of which have come to fruition in the past few seasons. Through expert plotting and character development, the show was able to keep fans guessing for years, only intensifying their pursuit of answers as the final season debuted.
This isn’t the type of theory I’m talking about here though.
Plot is Bullshit
Okay, that’s a little harsh, but it’s part of proving my point.
The theory is an old one. While many people will attack plot in a story they don’t like, it usually isn’t the reason it falls flat. Plot is a structure on which a story is built and, yes, a faulty foundation will destroy a building, but we don’t tend to judge the merit of a building on its foundation. It’s the same with a story. Your plot has to reach a certain level of competency, but we base our assessment of it on the artistic elements that follow.
Though these elements are many, in this case three stand above the rest: character development, plot contrivance and, this is a little more general, visual storytelling.
Game of Thrones has excelled at all three for most of its run.
*Spoilers Really Start Here*
The destruction of King’s Landing was absolutely brutal, like, horror movie violent. The Hound vs. The Mountain was a deserved main event that looked like a real slobber-knocker. That dragon whose name I never remember getting shot out of the sky was sick. Visually, there’s still a lot to love.
But it is ultimately moments like these that expose what’s gone wrong in the series.
What’s important when crafting these narratives is making sure your audience is kept in a state of suspense that invests them in the characters. Benjamin Percy gets into this at length in the excellent Thrill Me, which I would recommend to any writer. Over seven seasons, Game of Thrones kept their viewers on the edge of the seat by creating an air of uncertainty.
This uncertainty was created by three synergistic elements.
- That even the most central characters could die in any episode.
- That there were few characters given screen time that lacked significance.
- That the audience wouldn’t know when the next major turn was coming because it was not a constant barrage of these moments.
The truth is, in basic plot elements and even the world it has built, Game of Thrones isn’t all that different than its fantasy contemporaries. The difference was in play of these elements, allowing characters to grow and evolve through time so they could eventually get back to the evil queen, the dragons, witches and ice zombies. The true complexity of the show is nigh solely derived characters. In previous, seasons the show has proven that there were other ways to make this feel serious than Tolkien’s contemporary myth approach. Games of Thrones was fairly revolutionary because of these characters and the poignant moments their actions created.
These elements did need one thing to thrive in, and it is what is lacking from this season.
The reported explanation for the shortened, 6 episode final season was budget. That each episode was to cost an approximate $15 Million dollars, making a double-digit episode count unreasonable. Later, it was confirmed that the episodes would be longer than typical, which seemed to calm the worries of a lot of viewers. HBO head Richard Plepler would go on to praise these supposed mini-movies ahead of their airing, claiming that they held up even without digital effects.
I don’t like to be inflammatory, but what the hell did he watch when saw the third and fifth episodes? Seriously.
Anyway, instead of six mini-movies, what we ended up with were slightly longer episodes that couldn’t afford to cut anything out. This rushed pacing has killed character development and left us with a show of plot points and explosions. While there has been some valid criticism on some of these plot points, I personally support most of them. We’ll cover that more in a podcast because that’s not what my point is here. For the sake of this argument, let’s just look at the major plot points from Episode Five, which exemplifies the issue.
Varys attempts to sway Jon Snow to seize power
Daenerys is revealed to be in a poor mental state
Varys betrays Daenerys
Tyrion exposes Varys’ betrayal
Varys is executed
Jon, with finality, rejects Daenerys’ advances
(Off Camera) Jaime is captured by Daenerys’ Forces – Hold on, we have to talk about this. In one of the most emotionally charged moments of the series, Jaime leaves Brienne to defend Cersei. Jaime finally coming together with Brienne was one of the few truly effective moments this season, in large part because of the build over previous ones. That moment is not only rushed, but Jaime’s capture isn’t even on screen. It is followed by something so huge and so underplayed that it is an insult to the show’s past work.
Tyrion frees Jaime and lays out a plan for his siblings’ escape – Yeah, that wasn’t at the end of the episode.
Big Old Battle for King’s Landing
Daenerys slaughters innocents, believing she can rule only through fear (Grey Worm too!)
Jaime (barely) kills Euron
The Hound convinces Arya that a life of vengeance isn’t one worth living
The Hound and Zombie Mountain throw down, leading to their mutual destruction
Jaime and Cersei are reunited
Jaime and Cersei (presumably) die under some rocks
And yes, there were a few character moments stuck in there, but that’s not the point. All of the moments I highlighted here could have been the end of an effective episode. They are all big changes in the state of play and would have had audiences talking into the next week. Instead, they are all thrown together in quick succession, not allowing drama to build nor giving the audience an opportunity to perceive their gravity. Cersei, arguably the show’s most central character after Jon Snow, apparently dies in seconds, not even garnering the final scene. I think the crew here tried to give the audience a moment to contemplate all of this chaos with Arya’s discovery of the white horse, but the damage had already been done. Episode 5 had enough major beats to be a season on its own.
Here, At the End of All Things
Game of Thrones has been a show that thrived on execution. A show that became more popular than any in the history of its genre through an attention to detail and style that surpassed even the greats. I don’t know the circumstances under which the decision was made to cut this down to six episodes, but it did a terrible disservice to the show. We tend to shy away from the negative on this site, we like to present theory on things we love. The truth is, that’s what I’m doing. I love Game of Thrones for what it did. It presented a fantastic world in an unprecedented way. That said, the final season has betrayed itself through a rushed format that buried the intrigue the audience came to expect. There are plenty of moments this season that should have had audiences talking for years. They were robbed of the importance they could have had.
I will watch the last episode of Game of Thrones (for future readers, it has yet to air), but I do so just for the answers. I’m worried about the state of HBO in general at this point. They didn’t stick the landing and I know it. I know it because part of that landing should have been the journey there.
This season, we didn’t get to see what made the show so special.