Oh woe! That was a dagger in the gut of a once-great series
It killed off its most dangerous villain three episodes from the end, then ‘Game of Thrones’ fell sadly apart
So certain was I of its brilliance, I used to argue that there was no real need for Game of Thrones to end. And even if it did end, the show runners could always just take a break for a couple of years, while the fans howled for more – and then pick up the story where it had left off. After all, a land like Westeros can never truly be at peace; there will always be would-be assassins, plotting to steal the crown for themselves. There will always be new dangers, new enemies, new wars. The story could go on forever.
After the dismaying calamity that was season eight, though: would we actually want it to?
It feels like another age now, but just three weeks ago I was raving over The Long Night. At the same time, though, I did worry, just a little, that after such a spectacular showdown, the remaining three episodes were at risk of anticlimax.
As it turned out, their fate was far, far worse.
After the mess of The Bells came The Iron Throne, a finale that somehow managed to seem both rushed and sluggish, with a final twist that was both puzzling and underwhelming. The key event, Jon Snow’s assassination of Daenerys, arrived so early, and was carried out so straightforwardly, that it felt unsatisfying, even bathetic. And with that, more or less immediately, all the episode’s tension and drama tumbled away.
The remainder of the episode – which accounted for more than half the running time – represented a kind of narrative admin: a dutiful tying up of loose ends, running through each of the surviving characters, allotting them new roles, giving us a glimpse of their immediate futures, and bidding them farewell.
But even as admin it was inadequate because, in its haste to wrap up the squabble over the crown, the episode carelessly skipped over a whacking great chasm in the plot. Just what exactly happened the moment Jon Snow was found to have murdered the woman who was not only queen, but leader of the vast, raging ranks of Dothraki and Unsullied? Are we seriously expected to believe that an apoplectic Grey Worm simply led the assassin to a cell and patiently waited several weeks for a bunch of nobles (whom he’s never served) to travel all the way down to King’s Landing to decide the prisoner’s fate?
Really? That’s what Grey Worm would have done? The Grey Worm we’d seen, mere minutes earlier, slashing the throats of Lannister soldiers, long after the battle had ended, solely because his beloved queen had ordered it? The Grey Worm who looked ready to slash the throat of Jon Snow, too, merely for interrupting him in carrying out this order? The Grey Worm who’d since been appointed Master of War, and therefore the commander of all Daenerys’s bloodthirsty, heavily armed forces? That Grey Worm?
Oh, and while we’re at it: this same Grey Worm had also been under orders, from his late queen, to execute Tyrion. Why (all these weeks later, while Sansa and co trotted down from King’s Landing) had he still yet to do so? Had it not occurred to him that Tyrion had conspired in Daenerys’s murder?
Instead, not only did Grey Worm inexplicably allow him to live, he stood and watched as Tyrion – a prisoner literally in chains – took it upon himself to decide who Daenerys’s successor as monarch would be. Which, for some reason, everyone automatically went along with.
Still, I’d better move on, because there are plenty more mysteries to wade through. We’ll get on to the new monarch in a moment. But first: what on Earth was going on in that dragon’s head?
To summarise: Drogon, upon seeing the lifeless body of Daenerys, decided in retribution not to kill the sole possible suspect of her murder, but to destroy the Iron Throne instead. It’s a pity, really, that Drogon was given no dialogue, because at this particular point I could personally have done with some insight into his thinking.
As it is, I suppose we’ll just have to assume it was something along the lines of, “Hey! I may look like a dumb overgrown lizard, but as a matter of fact I possess not just a surprisingly keen understanding of my human sort-of-mother’s political ambitions, but an impressive grasp of dramatic symbolism. This Iron Throne, I somehow happen to know, was her life’s goal – and if she can’t have it, why, I shall ensure that no one else can have it, either! Damn this blasted chair – it has brought nothing but pain and suffering to this land that just a few episodes ago I had never set foot in!”
Come to think of it, not only was the destruction of the Iron Throne silly as a spectacle, it was also meaningless as a symbol. Because ultimately, it caused little to change. Instead, this eight-season story of revolution ended in something that looked eerily like business as usual.
Bran may on the face of it seem an unorthodox kind of king – the wheelchair, the near-omniscience, the ability to exert mind-control over passing animals – but he’s also a man, who has appointed as his advisers an almost exclusively male council, and is soon to appoint a Master of War, and to rebuild his navy. In many ways, then, life in Westeros will go on much as before, and in due course wars, no doubt, will be fought as before. As I said at the top: a land like Westeros can never truly be at peace. The wheel has not been broken. It’s barely even been scratched.
But anyway: why Bran? We’ll set aside his repeated insistence, earlier in the season, that he is no longer Bran anyway, and therefore not a Stark either. Even if that, for some reason, is now irrelevant, his appointment as ruler feels like little more than a twist for twists’ sake. Tyrion’s reasoning – the only reasoning we were offered – was nonsense.
“What unites people?” he asked the assembled candidates for the throne (from whom, inexplicably, he was being permitted to choose). “Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories! There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it. And who has a better story than Bran the Broken?”
Well, as any GoT viewer must have felt tempted to interject: “Quite a lot of people, frankly.” But to highlight one in particular: Bran’s elder sister, Sansa, whose own story saw her survive Joffrey, win the Battle of the Bastards, save Jon Snow, avenge herself on Ramsay Bolton, outwit Littlefinger – and end up as the sole surviving character to have demonstrated competence in actually running anything. Bran, meanwhile, spent half the show either being dragged silently around in the snow on a sledge, or daydreaming in the roots of a magic tree.
Still, from the writers’ point of view, I suppose it was better to offer us Tyrion’s flannel about “stories” than to admit the alternative justification for picking Bran: ie, he’s a man, and Sansa isn’t. As the late Lord Varys observed a couple of episodes ago, a man as ruler is more appealing to the Lords of Westeros. And though – as Sansa herself pointed out – Bran will be unable to produce an heir, the objection was waved casually away. Sansa was at least permitted to rule the North, as she’d requested, but it felt tokenistic, a runner-up medal, a pat on the head for being such a good girl. Any notion of Game of Thrones as a “feminist” narrative instantly evaporated.
Then again: maybe, in some perverse way, the choice of a man over a better qualified woman was actually in keeping with the show’s spirit. By so consistently subverting expectation, Game of Thrones had created an expectation that it would always subvert expectation – and so, in the end, it decided to subvert that expectation, too.
On the other hand: no. Too generous. As with Daenerys’s abrupt mutation into a genocidal tyrant, the show simply didn’t put enough work into justifying this final twist.
The sad truth is, Game of Thrones died with the Night King. The moment Arya drove her dagger into his icy guts, it was all over. Up until that point, the show had always felt as if it had purpose, and direction. It was always heading somewhere; exactly where, we had little idea, but we were sure it would be dazzling. We had faith. After all, the show had never fallen short before.
Having killed off its most dangerous villain a full three episodes from the end, however, Game of Thrones fell miserably apart. To surpass The Long Night, it needed something big. Something huge. And it needed it fast. But the last-minute bid to persuade us that, all along, there had been a villain who was even more dangerous than the Night King, and that she was none other than our heroine, came out looking frantic, clumsy, and above all desperate. The show that had lived on shocks, thrived on shocks, was ultimately killed by one.
HBO is already at work on a prequel. I used to hope for a sequel, too. Not any more.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)