King’s Landing has been razed to the ground – and with it went any possibility of Game of Thrones pulling out of its late-season plunge into television infamy.
**WARNING: SPOILERS FOR FINALE**
Jaime Lannister’s redemption arc was revealed to be a cheap joke at the audience’s expense in the penultimate episode, The Bells. Daenerys Targaryen was retrofitted as a destructive maniac. Not because that was where the previous 71 hours were leading but because it was where the short-term thinking of show-runners David Benioff and DB Weiss demanded she go. Oh and “Cleganebowl” – can we finally stop calling it that? – had all the dramatic portent of a Star Wars prequel light sabre battle.
And the finale was just as underwhelming as we all feared. Jon killed Dany, as we always knew he would. Bran Stark, the weirdo Three Eyed Raven, became king - as nobody thought he would. Arya once again failed to use the face-swapping powers she spent so long perfecting.
Thrones isn’t the first show to come unstuck in the final stages. But its crash and burn is proving to be unprecedented – as is the backlash of its hardcore fanbase and the genuine vitriol felt towards Benioff and Weiss. At the time of writing, a change.org petition to get season remade by "competent writers" has garnered over a million signatures.
Some of the attacks are obviously over the top – this is the internet, after all. Nonetheless, much of the criticism is, week by terrible week, proving to be warranted. With so much lore and with so many pages of George RR Martin’s novels still available for adaptation – the bulk of the most recent two books barely made it to the screen – all the pair really had to was respectfully and thoughtful piece together the jigsaw.
But it appeared they have no interest in that. Instead, with this muck-fest of a denouement, they have pulled a Three-Eyed Raven of their own, going back in time to make previous seasons of GoT completely unwatchable. What’s the point, now, in revisiting the Battle of the Blackwater, knowing Tyrion Lannister will eventually be dumbed down into an earnest idiot?
And was there any purpose to the Night’s Watch v Wildlings face-off of season four beyond furnishing Jon Snow with Tormund Giantsbane as sidekick? The death and resurrection of Snow, ridiculous at the time, now tips towards farce. And why would anyone willingly sit through Hardhome again, now we understood the Night King is less avenging storm than mild drizzle?
Watching The Bells – yes let us pause to reflect Daenerys, survivor of war, fire, physical and emotional trauma was pushed over the edge by some chiming from a steeple! – it seemed at moments as if Benioff and Weiss had already moved on to their next gig overseeing a Disney Star Wars trilogy.
Video of the Day
Because that’s what the episode felt like – a blockbuster by numbers, obsessed with spectacle and with absolutely no interest in doing justice to any of the characters with whom series, and all of us, have spent the past eight years.
So Jaime, after apparently redeemed himself in Winterfell, was content to die with Cersei. He did so having told Tyrion had he had no regard for the ordinary people of King’s Landing (so why did he kill Aerys Targaryen in the first place, sullying his reputation so that thousands would not need to perish needlessly?).
And how should we respond to Arya Stark’s journey from wide-eyed little girl to Night King slaying super ninja back to wide-eyed little girl (though not so wide-eyed that she couldn’t lead a mother and daughter to their deaths). Snatching the gong for utter absurdity of course is Deanerys's cray-cray moment. Married off to a barbarian as a teenager, the target of multiple assassination attempts and just out from a nasty break-up with her nephew – after all that, it was a bell that turned her around the twist?
George RR Martin had, it is true, promised a “bittersweet” ending to his novels. Certainly it is possible to squint and imagine a parallel universe in which Daenerys’s descent into insanity is slowly, plausibly sketched out. One where Jaime and Cersei fall destructively back into one another’s orbit. Even one where Euron Greyjoy poses a realistic threat to huge flying reptiles (the printed page at least took the trouble to furnish him with a magic horn called Dragonbinder).
Alas, the HBO series, so eager for the finish line, had no interest in slowly tracing the protagonists' self destruction. All of which is a long winded way of saying these are confusing and upsetting times for Thrones diehards. Those who have followed the series from the outset – and fell in love with the Martin texts years previously – have watched the final season with a sense of slowly-building horror.
What is dead may never die – but a once fantastic television show can certainly fall off a cliff and tumble into empty Hollywood spectacle.The feeling of accumulating dread has nothing to do with the perfunctory destruction of King’s Landing or Night King and his minions sweeping south into the Seven Kingdoms.
Rather, this rising tide of disappointment came as we realised what a massive Aemon Targaryen Benioff and Weiss were making of its concluding run of episodes. The Night King was defeated with a finger-click – by Arya Stark of all people (nothing wrong with Arya Stark, she’s fantastic, but since when was she in the frame as the antagonist of the White Walkers?).
Game of Thrones has doubled down on the defenestration of Tyrion Lannister – once a Machiavellian wit, now a trader of knob gags with Varys (executed by Daenerys after dispatching treacherous letters in plain view of the Mother of Dragons). It ditched Jon’s Direwolf, Ghost, with shocking callousness. And it continued to taunt us with Captain Jack Sparrow’s evil twin – aka Euron Greyjoy, who died trying to pointlessly kill Jaime Lannister.
The problem is that, up to this week at least, hardcore Throneheads – agog and aghast at this late-onset silliness – were in the minority. Game of Thrones has never been more adored. Season eight has shattered records much as Arya shattered the Night King with her Valyrian steel dagger.
Incredibly 192,000 people stayed up in the UK to watch the 2am “live” premiere on April 15. HBO in the US garnered its biggest ever audience of 17.4 million for the same episode. Visiting my hometown the week before GoT returned I was surprised to discover a once-modestly appointed pub, squeezed between a chip-shop and a carpark, festooned with House Greyjoy Kraken sigils. The world has gone wild for Westeros.
But alas as Game of Thrones has grown in popularity so it has plummeted in quality. Remember the meticulously plotted, gorgeously Machiavellian series of seasons one to four (five if we’re pushing it)?
That was when Thrones was serious about the stories it told and, in particular, that characters’ actions should have consequences. Re-watching series three you can, for instance, see the Red Wedding coming a mile off. It was the inevitable consequence of Robb Stark’s naivety – not a narrative rabbit pulled from a hat by Benioff and Weiss, as the Arya v Night King kill was.
Game of Thrones is no longer that show. It’s been quite a while since basic storytelling logic imposed itself upon the excitement. Where was the fall-out for Cersei Lannister after she obliterated the Sept of Baelor and with it major players such as Kevan Lannister and Margaery Tyrell? How did the Night King plan to get past the Wall before he captured Daenerys’s dragon? What has been the ultimate point of Bran other than to sit there, milky-eyed, and creep us out /get on our nerves (increasingly more the latter than the former).
The backlash among a certain segment of ultra-dedicated fans has been intense. Schlep around the internet and you can’t help but be struck by the vitriolic quality of the criticism of Benioff and Weiss, as they try to bring to a tidy conclusion Martin’s sprawling story (even as Martin himself faffs about with the as yet unfinished penultimate novel in the series, The Winds of Winter).
“Hacks” and "rubbish" are the most common insults thrown about. The complaint is that Benioff and Weiss are parlour tricksters interested only in big shock moments – Arya v the Night King – and lacking an appreciation of the deeper themes and subtexts of the novels.
Others accuse them of glibness in thinking they could rush Martin’s story to a close over two truncated seasons of seven and six instalments respectively (pushing on even though HBO had given them the option of the standard 10 episodes).
George RR Martin has spoken for many when suggesting the series should probably have run for longer. “It’s complex and I’m a little sad, actually,” said the author, rumoured to be miffed that Benioff and Weiss gutted many of the storylines from his most recent two books in the sequence, A Feast For Crows and a Dance With Dragons.
“I wish we had a few more seasons. But I understand. [Benioff and Weiss] are gonna go on to do other things, and I’m sure some of the actors were signed up for like seven or eight years, and they would like to go on and take other roles. All of that is fair. I’m not angry or anything like that, but there’s a little wistfulness in me.”
Benioff’s disastrous script for the 2009 film X- Men Origins: Wolverine and its decision to fasten shut the mouth of the Deadpool character (the entire point of Deadpool is that he’s quip a minute) has been brought up. As has Benioff and Weiss’s reveal in an HBO behind the scenes clip that they decided to have Arya killing the Night King because it would be “really cool”. Many fans felt like Robb at the Red Wedding – caught unawares and pinged with arrows.
The anguish flows in part from the fact that we have all been invested in Game of Thrones for nearly a decade now (longer if you factor in the novels). After all of that, Throne followers were upset the threat of the White Walkers was dealt with in just a single episode. And that Arya was picked, seemingly at random, to kill the Night King (in another interview George RR Martin suggested HBO is pressurising Benioff and Weiss to give bigger parts to characters tracking well with viewers).
They are also aghast at Euron Greyjoy and his magical flying fleet, which can pop up anywhere and take out a dragon travelling at full speed with a boat-based crossbow. And who, a week later, could be swatted aside by Drogon. More than that they hate what the show has done to Sansa (now one dimensionally snappy), Arya (a weirdo who “celebrates” her big victory over the Walkers by hiding in the dark and firing arrows at doorposts), Bran (the one-eyed riddle machine) and Daenerys – whose complexity has this season been smoothed out into a burgeoning insanity.
The distress is genuine (if obviously a tad OTT considering we are talking about a mere TV show). “This season has made previous seasons unwatchable,” wrote one Reddit user. “Basically after the s___ show that was episode three and now four this season, the rewatchability of previous seasons went down the drain.. Knowing now that Jon's and Bran’s stories mean nothing and that the biggest threat to mankind was a f___ing joke makes watching seasons 1-4 very difficult.”
Another accusation is that, as already mentioned, Benioff and Weiss are bored of Game of Thrones and counting down to their next gig, overseeing a new Star Wars trilogy for Disney. Reddit users are so incensed they upvoted a picture of Benioff and Weiss captioned “bad writers” so that it’s one of the first things that appears when you enter the term on Google.
David Benioff, left, and DB Weiss will direct the next instalment in the Star Wars franchise (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)
“How did D&D mess up George’s baby?,” began one post. “I personally think they just don’t care anymore. They are proud of what they’ve accomplished and think they can just about get away with anything. They thought that they just had to make the episodes long, add elements of fan service, and subvert expectations… Once they got all of their bullet points down, they’d just BS the rest and thought it would work.. Their love for the lore and story has faded with fame and they feel like they don’t owe the viewers anything for watching the show the past 10 years.”
And then there are the complaints that Benioff and Weiss are tone deaf to the novels’ repudiation of the simplistic morality of the Tolkien-school of high fantasy. “He [Martin] also expressly distanced himself from the "dark lord" archetype like Sauron, the only-evil entity that comes out of the dark with only killing in mind, and whose entire army will fall if he is defeated,” wrote one fan-forum user. “That didn't stop the show writers from running with the trope to the letter.”
Some have already sworn off, resolving to wait until – and if – George RR Martin gets around to the final two volumes in A Song of Ice and Fire (it’s eight years and counting since A Dance with Dragons). Others just buckled up for the ride, grinning and bearing it.
Perhaps we should just accept Game of Thrones 2019 was no longer the series we became obsessed with in 2011. That show was sly and subtle. Thrones 2019 was unambiguously a thing of Hollywood – loud, cheesy, illogical.
But is there anything wrong, really, with loud, cheesy, illogical Hollywood spectacle? Star Wars – or at least the Disney version – ticks those boxes. As do the Marvel movies. The point is that, Game of Thrones isn’t going to change just for us. So let’s enjoy it for the big, stupid, lowest-denominator cheeseburger that it has become. That way it is likely to leave so much less of an aftertaste.