Warning: contains spoilers for the Game of Thrones season eight.
We all know the story by now. There are a handful of shows that were once extremely popular, but took a sharp turn for the worse towards the end. True Blood, Lost, How I Met Your Mother, Dexter … all left viewers with a distinct feeling of “huh. Was that it?” following their finales.
For the most part, fans of the above will probably be happy to rewatch some of the earlier seasons, but stop before the end. One show, however, has a final season so poorly received, it retrospectively tainted what came before and left some fans reluctant to ever rewatch: Game of Thrones.
A Disappointing Answer
There’s a reason that show’s final season didn’t just leave viewers to drift away, but left some too upset to want to ever revisit. Game of Thrones was built around a single, central question: who will sit on the Iron Throne? When the answer to that question proved unsatisfactory, the lengthy journey to reach an answer that was a total let-down left a bitter taste in the mouth.
Of course, Game of Thrones’ final season had more problems than just the issue of who ended up as King of the Seven Kingdoms. The sequence of events, putting the huge final battle against the Night King halfway through the shortened season while the actual finale focused on the more human, political side of things probably sounded like a good idea at the time, since it was the human-politics side of the story that brought in so many mainstream viewers back in Season 1. But by the time we got to Season 8, viewers knew that they were watching a fantasy show, and they were hyped for the big battle against the encroaching zombie hordes that had been promised since the very first scene of the very first episode. The battle itself didn’t disappoint, but everything that happened after the epic showdown in ‘The Long Night’ felt like an afterthought.
Dany’s Rushed Descent
Even more frustratingly, the storyline of those last three episodes, and indeed Daenerys’ storyline throughout Seasons 7 and 8, was horribly rushed. We have reason to believe, based on prophecies from the books, that Martin’s intentions for Daenerys’ character arc are in broad strokes similar to the TV show. There are plenty of hints throughout the story that she may be headed down a dark path. There’s her ruthless actions as Queen, a particularly grim moment being the crucification of 163 Grand Masters in Meereen (an inversion of the historical Crassus crucifying the survivors of Spartacus’ slave revolt in Roman history). Daenerys also thinks and talks a lot about why her father, Aerys II Targaryen, went destructively mad and whether she is prone to the same thing. (Let’s not start on A Song of Ice and Fire’s problematic approach to genetics, there isn’t time!)
However, Daenerys’ turn from well-intentioned saviour figure to dark and destructive Evil Queen was, as has been observed many times before, rushed to the point of not making any sense. The change was too quick, her shifting attitudes switching far too swiftly. We were presented with a character who had spent most of the series saving people, destroying a city that was trying to surrender because she wanted revenge against two people (Euron Greyjoy and Cersei Lannister). Her character and actions stopped making sense because we hadn’t seen enough of a slow burn on this change.
Bizarre Deaths and a Bungled Redemption
Daenerys’ wasn’t the only character short-changed by the final season. While seeing Cersei crushed by a falling building might have been mildly satisfying, audiences were probably hoping for something more dramatic, more in line with her eldest son Joffrey’s well-received demise. And Jaime Lannister’s story took a bizarre turn. After a lengthy (and well-paced) redemption arc culminating in him and the noble-hearted Brienne finally getting it on, he suddenly leaves Brienne in the middle of the night to go back to Cersei.
And then finally, to top it all off, we get the answer to the single question that has been driving the whole series since the death of King Robert back in Season 1 – who will sit on the new replacement for the now-destroyed Iron Throne? And the answer is… Bran Stark. A character who told his sister Sansa in Season 7 that he “can never be lord of anything” because he isn’t even entirely human any more, as he is now the Three-Eyed Raven. He has become almost completely emotionless, and as such, is a charisma vacuum. He is surely the worst possible candidate to be King.
A Forgivable Disaster?
To top it all off, Tyrion gets a terrible speech (Peter Dinklage does his absolute best to save it and nearly succeeds, but it’s awful) in which he insists that not only should they choose a monarch based on whoever “has the best story” (not whoever has the biggest sword? Or is the most intelligent? Or whoever has the best claim to the throne in what’s left of their hereditary monarchy? Or whoever is the most popular with the people? Those criteria, by the way, would give us Jon Snow, Tyrion himself, Jon Snow again, or Sansa Stark), but that Bran – who was physically assaulted early on, wandered around for a bit, skipped an entire season learning prophecy, then showed up to basically tell everyone “I knew that was going to happen” – had a “better story” than the woman who killed the Night King, the man who defeated the Mad Queen Daenerys, or the woman who re-claimed the North. It was a disaster.
But was it a forgivable disaster? HBO are gambling that it was – their new prequel series, House of the Dragon, is coming this August. Not only does this assume a continued appetite for all things Game of Thrones in a world where some have turned their back on the series, it’s focused on House Targaryen, the very House that came out of the finale looking so bad.
While all those people who named their daughters Khaleesi may be looking into how to legally change someone’s name, Daenerys’ character arc probably is, in the long run, forgivable. If we take the time to re-watch the series, we’ll see some hints dropped here and there, and some fans had predicted it all along. The problem with Daenerys’ story, aside from upsetting fans of the character, wasn’t so much the story itself as the pacing. With hindsight and knowing where it’s heading, that may not be anyone’s favourite story development, but it will likely be something many fans can live with.
Cersei and Jaime’s endings are trickier. Cersei get her comeuppance, sort of, and viewers can probably live with that, but Jaime’s story is left flapping all over the place. His primary, over-riding motivation throughout is love, and “the things we do for love”, so his ending is perhaps forgivable – he loves Cersei too much and can’t help but go back to her – but it’s frustrating, as his apparent redemption had been such a satisfying story.
Stop Before King Bran?
But then we come back to King Bran. This is where fans are really going to struggle. Years and years of viewing, hours of television, to lead to an unsatisfying climax that makes no sense. That might just put viewers off all together. Sure, we all know that the journey can be more important than the destination, but when the destination is such a great disappointment, the journey does become tainted.
Still, fans do always have the option of watching until Season 8, Episode 3, and then stopping. That cuts out Jaime’s return to Cersei, it cuts out Daenerys’ turn to complete destruction and death, and it cuts out King Bran. Arya being the person who killed the Night King came a bit out of left field, but she’s a fan favourite character so they can get away with it, and we can all imagine that Sansa became Queen of the Seven Kingdoms like she should have done. Or fill in your preferred ending.
The drawback to the new series being a prequel is that, like the earlier seasons of the show, it is a story building to an unsatisfying climax. But the advantage to the prequel is that it doesn’t have to talk about the ending of Game of Thrones at all. None of those events have happened yet. There might be the odd obscure prophecy, but there’s no need to talk about Daenerys’ rushed character development, Jaime’s slide backwards, or Bran’s baffling rise to power. If we so choose, we can just pretend Episodes 4, 5, and 6 of Season 8 never happened. And in the end, that might be the only way the fans are finally able to forgive the show, and enjoy its early – fantastic – seasons again.
House of the Dragon starts on HBO on Sunday the 21st of August and on Sky Atlantic in the UK on Monday the 22nd of August.